Florida Officials Battle Over Face Masks as Pandemic Persists

A group of people, wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, walk along a beach path on Miami Beach, Florida’s famed South Beach, July 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(CN) — The debate over face masks raged in a rural Florida county on Wednesday as the Sunshine State continues to see a wave of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Billy Woods, the sheriff of Marion County in central Florida, ordered all staff to not wear masks while working, according to an Aug. 11 email, first obtained by the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper.

“Now, I can already hear the whining and just so you know I did not make this decision easily and I have weighed it out for the past 2 weeks,” the sheriff wrote. “We can debate and argue all day of why and why not. The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”

“My orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address,” he added.

At the same time, in Ocala, the county’s largest city, elected officials fiercely debated a city-wide face mask mandate.

Last week, the Ocala City Council passed an ordinance requiring face masks inside businesses. Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed the mandate on Monday and the city council overturned the veto during a heated council meeting on Wednesday.

“We need to cover up when we are inside,” said councilman Ire Bethea Sr. before the vote. “We need to be respectful of others even if we don’t care about ourselves.”

“This thing is not a joke,” said Bethea, who was hospitalized with the virus last month. “We don’t seem to understand that this thing is real out here.”

Florida does not have a statewide face mask mandate but many counties and metropolitan areas have instituted their own directives.

The Florida Department of Health’s latest update reported 8,183 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday and 212 deaths. The day prior saw a record number of deaths — 276. 

Due to the way the state gathers records, the deaths could have occurred days or even weeks earlier.

In addition, health officials said Wednesday’s numbers reflect a backlog of testing data from a lab in Miami.

“The lab reported more than 4,000 cases occurring over the past seven weeks, which had not been reported to DOH until today,” state health officials said in a statement. “Therefore, this backlog severely skews today’s daily report for Miami-Dade County and is not reflective of current trends.”

Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, continues to see the greatest number of cases despite a slower reopening than the rest of Florida.

More than 8,700 Floridians have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus and 545,040 have contracted it.

Equally concerning for public health officials, the positivity rate among Floridians hovers around 10%, according to state data. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization advise a positivity rate of 5% or less indicates the virus is under control.

Florida’s coronavirus cases waned in recent weeks, though the state remains one of the country’s epicenters. That distinction has concerned some health experts as the state moves to reopen schools this month and resume college sports.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a health research center, predicts coronavirus deaths in Florida surpassing 19,000 by December if statewide measures, such as face mask mandates, are not implemented.

In Marion County, the sheriff’s anti-mask directive also applies to visitors to any of the law enforcement agency’s offices.

“In light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby,” wrote Woods.

Ocala city councilman Matthew Wardell does not support the sheriff’s position.

“Personal liberty is rooted in personal responsibility, and that means responsible to those around you,” he said.

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