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County Commission discusses mandatory face coverings

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During today’s County Commission meeting, Commissioner Ken Cornell said that as the economy starts to re-open, “We ought to look at making masking mandatory for grocery stores or for places where the public is interacting, because I’ve got to believe we’re going to have a lot more people out and about.” He sees it as an important piece of building consumer confidence while re-opening the economy.

Cornell referred to an IFAS webinar, in which Dr. John Lednicky said masks are effective in combating aerosol spread. In the same webinar, Dr. Glenn Morris said masks could reduce the spread 50%-60%. Cornell added, “Those are to protect others from you, not to protect you.” He said his concern is for the elderly and at-risk population as people start going out again. He recommended basing our orders on the orders that Miami-Dade implemented on April 9, Broward on April 10, and Palm Beach on April 11. [Those three counties have the highest numbers of cases in Florida, while Alachua County’s per capita cases have been below the state average.] The orders require face coverings and refer to a CDC site that shows you how to make them from commonly-available materials like t-shirts.

Commission Mike Byerly asked Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, whether there is a consensus among health care professionals on the effectiveness of face masks and whether we should be moving toward mandatory face masks in public.

Myers said, “There is no consensus. As I’ve stated before, the science is on both sides of this issue. Again, let me just defer to CDC guidance… they indicate that wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain: grocery store, pharmacy, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission, that it should be a voluntary, and I think the key word here is voluntary, public health measure.”

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He continued, “The more I think about this, and the more I investigate this–there was a great paper that was put out by the University of Minnesota, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, where they did not an exhaustive literature review, but they cited 52 studies, and what they came back with was that cloth masks are ineffective as source control, and as PPE. Surgical masks have some role to play in preventing emissions from infected patients, and respirators, N-95s, are the best choice for protecting health care and other front-line workers, but not recommended for source control. These recommendations apply to pandemic and non-pandemic situations.

“I think that as you go forward, in terms of… deciding whether or not to make this a mandatory or a strongly-encouraged and recommended practice, that we take into account that those who have breathing difficulties, and we have over 10,000 people in Alachua County who suffer from asthma, COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, that they may get claustrophobic wearing a form-fitting mask, so please take that into consideration as you move forward, but again, I defer to CDC in terms of the voluntary public health measure.”

Byerly said it seems like an “extreme measure,” and he’s looking for an “authoritative voice” to recommend it before he is willing to vote for mandatory facial coverings.

Cornell said they would only be mandatory when going into a place of business like a grocery store or pharmacy. He doesn’t think masks are necessary outdoors.

Byerly said most people try not to cough or sneeze on other people, and carrying a handkerchief to sneeze into could be just as effective as wearing a mask. Cornell said wearing a mask makes a person more aware of how they interact with others. He said that wearing a mask may become a “new normal until we’re at a different point.” He also said a bandanna could work for people with asthma instead of a mask.

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler agreed that masks are “a way to help people remember this is an issue… and that we’ve not been gaslighted into thinking that this thing never happened and that somehow we were all duped.”

Hutchinson suggested that one option would be to mandate that employers put a sign like this on their door if their employees aren’t wearing masks:

The fine print says, “This notice is required to be posted on the door of each public and employee entrance to businesses or organizations in Alachua County where any employees within the building are not wearing masks intended to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus and other airborne infections to their customers and other employees. Minimum sign size is 8.5 x 11 inches, minimum font size for the ten words of the main message is 90 point type. Signs available at: www.AlachuaCounty.us/MaskSigns. Reports regarding non-compliance: Dial 311. Alachua County Emergency Order 2020-xx.”

Byerly said he supported the sign because “information is good… I can see no harm in letting people know before they go into a business how that business is responding to this issue that’s on everyone’s mind.”

Hutchinson shared another sign, which he said would be optional:

Hutchinson said they could go with the signs instead of making everyone wear masks. “Short of us requiring everyone to wear a mask, it’s only forcing the employees but not the customers, but… the business is saying we care enough about our customers to wear masks–or, it’s saying we don’t care enough about our customers to wear masks, because we believe Paul Myers, we believe Mike Byerly, that masks aren’t doing anything.”

Hutchinson said they could also give employers the right to deny admittance to anybody not wearing a mask. “If an employer cares enough about their employees to require customers to wear masks, I think they should be allowed to do that.”

Byerly corrected Hutchinson’s characterization of his position, saying he didn’t say masks didn’t do anything.

The County already has the sign order drafted, and they are sharing it with the municipalities in the county. Hutchinson said they would probably allow about a week’s notice for businesses to print the signs.

Hutchinson also said the sign order is his fall-back position. “I’d be fine with an Emergency Order that says if you’re going into a place of business, you need to be wearing a mask. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of businesses that aren’t even requiring their employees to do it. In my mind, this ought to be maybe step one, require the employees to do it, and then step two would be to require the public to do it… If we put this up first, and it was out there for a week or so, that would make it more feasible, I think, for us to do a more general order requiring everybody, when they’re going in public places, to wear masks.”

Hutchinson said he’d put the signs up on Facebook, and the comments had run about 2/3 positive and about 1/3 “believing that this whole thing’s gonna blow over and go away.” He said that when a business’s employees wear masks, “it’s an outward sign that we are taking this seriously… So does the sign on the door.”

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he would suggest wearing a mask in public “because I wouldn’t want anyone to catch it from me,” at least until there’s a vaccine, “but I wouldn’t want to make it mandatory for a business to do that.” He also didn’t want to make it mandatory to post a sign because responsible businesses are already doing the “right thing.”

The County Commission will meet again on Friday morning at 10 a.m. to respond to whatever Governor DeSantis does this week.

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