MANATEE COUNTY – Manatee County commissioners are expected to vote on whether to mandate face coverings countywide on Monday, July 27.
Monday’s meeting will take place at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto at 1:30 p.m. The meeting will be streamed live and broadcast on Spectrum channel 644.
On Wednesday, July 22, county commissioners voted 4-3 to direct the county attorney’s office to draft, schedule and advertise the necessary resolutions and ordinances to put in place a mask mandate as soon as possible.
That motion was made by Commissioner Misty Servia and supported by commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Betsy Benac and Carol Whitmore. Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Steve Jonsson and Priscilla Trace opposed Servia’s motion.
County face-covering resolution
On Friday, the proposed face-covering resolution, R-20-116, was posted on the county website.
If adopted by the commission majority on Monday, the face-covering resolution would serve as a short-term measure while the more formal and time-consuming ordinance adoption process is completed.
Legal notice of a prospective mask ordinance was scheduled to appear in a local daily newspaper on Sunday. As of Saturday, a public hearing for the adoption of a face-covering ordinance had not yet been scheduled.
Resolution R-20-116 notes, “It is in the best interest of the county, and furthers the public health, safety and welfare of the county, to require the wearing of face coverings and the displaying of signs in business establishments to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
According to Section 3 of the proposed resolution, “An individual in a business establishment must wear a face covering while in that business establishment. The requirement in this section does not apply to:
- “Situations in which individuals maintain 6 feet or more of distance between persons. This exception does not apply to employees who are present in the kitchen or other food and beverage preparation area of a business establishment. Nor does it apply to employees serving food or beverages.
- A child under the age of 6.
- Persons who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition or individuals with a documented or demonstrable medical problem. It is the intent of this exception that those individuals who cannot tolerate a facial covering for a medical, sensory or any other condition which makes it difficult for them to utilize a face covering and function in public are not required to wear one.
- “Public safety, fire, and other life safety and health care personnel, as their personal protective equipment requirements will be governed by their respective agencies.
- “Restaurant and bar patrons while eating or drinking. It is the intent of this exception that a face covering will be worn while traversing a business establishment for ingress and egress, to use the facilities, and while otherwise standing when persons are unable to maintain at least 6 feet of distancing.
- “An individual in a lodging establishment who is inside of the lodging unit, including, but not limited to, a hotel room, motel room, vacation rental unit, timeshare unit, or similar unit.”
The resolution notes, “Every business establishment shall display conspicuous signage notifying all persons of the requirement to wear a face covering.”
The resolution defines face coverings as “A material that covers the nose and mouth and that fits snugly against the sides of the face so there are no gaps. It can be made of a variety of materials, such as cotton, silk or linen. Coverings with materials made of multiple layers are highly encouraged. A cloth face covering may be factory-made or sewn by hand or the cloth face covering can be improvised from household items.”
The resolution states the term “business establishment” includes transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft and it also applies to mass transit, taxis, limousines, rental cars and other passenger vehicles for hire.
“The term ‘business establishment’ includes locations where non-profit, governmental and quasi-governmental entities facilitate public interactions and conduct business. The term ‘business establishment’ also includes places of worship,” the resolution says.
Enforcement and applicability
Section 4 of the county resolution says a violation of the emergency resolution is a noncriminal infraction and does not authorize the search or arrest of an individual. Prior to the issuance of a citation, the individual will be asked to comply with the emergency resolution or explain how an exception applies to them. The fine is $50 for a first offense, $125 for a second offense and $250 for every subsequent offense.
The ordinance would apply in cities within the county that do not have a mask ordinance, such as Bradenton Beach: “This emergency resolution shall apply countywide within both unincorporated and incorporated areas, provided that any municipal resolution or ordinance addressing the issue of face coverings – either more restrictively or less restrictively – shall supersede this emergency resolution within the applicable incorporated area,” the resolution states.
On Anna Maria Island, the cities of Anna Maria and Holmes Beach already have emergency mask ordinances in place. The city of Bradenton Beach recommends masks but does not have a formal mask/face covering resolution, order or ordinance in place.
“This emergency resolution shall take effect immediately upon its adoption. This emergency resolution shall remain in full force and effect for so long as the local state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic remains in effect,” the resolution states.
The county commission’s 4-3 request for a mask resolution and ordinance occurred during the discussion of ongoing issues relative to the COVID-19 emergency as the final agenda item for the commission’s Wednesday, July 22 land use meeting.
Chief Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague told commissioners if they wished to pursue a countywide mask mandate, he recommended it be based on the Leon County emergency mask ordinance that recently withstood a court challenge.
Leon County includes Tallahassee, where the state capital is located.
“From a legal standpoint, the best way to do this is by ordinance. The Leon example was an ordinance. Ordinances have the force of law in a way that resolutions and orders often do not. It carries with it greater weight with the courts as a legal requirement that everyone has to follow. If you decide to do this, the best model to use is the Leon model,” Clague said.
Before making her motion for a mask mandate, Commissioner Servia referenced the COVID-19 update Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Sauer had provided a few minutes earlier.
“We heard from Jake that deaths are up 15% in the last 30 days. We heard that hospitalizations are up 159 in the last 30 days. The daily positive rate is over 10%. Hospitals are at near capacity, or at capacity, and the outlook for those hospitals doesn’t look to be improving,” Servia said.
“Today, as we sit here and talk, my stepdad is at Manatee Memorial Hospital dying in the COVID unit,” Servia said.
“We on the board all have a friend who is on a ventilator and in critical condition because of COVID,” she added.
“I don’t like to wear a mask, but I do it to keep people safe, and I do it to try and keep our businesses open. I really worry about our businesses,” Servia said, expressing similar concerns about restaurants.
In response to a question and suggestion from Commissioner Bellamy, Clague said the commission could first adopt a mask resolution and later adopt a mask ordinance.
Commissioner Whitmore mentioned a letter the commissioners received from the Manatee County Medical Society which was signed by more than 100 local physicians seeking a countywide mask mandate.
In reference to an ordinance requiring 10 days’ notice, Whitmore said she just received a text from one doctor that said, “10 days is more deaths.”
Commissioner Trace suggested Sheriff Rick Wells attend Monday’s meeting and provide his input. When a mask mandate was previously discussed in late June, it was noted Wells opposed a mask mandate and did not think it was enforceable.
“We need to recognize it’s up to law enforcement how aggressively they want to enforce something like this. Typically they build in some time for people to come into compliance,” Clague noted.
Commissioner Steve Jonsson was the only commissioner who participated in Wednesday’s meeting remotely rather than in person.
“The businesses have to help us, and I think it’s their responsibility as private entrepreneurs. I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to dictate what we should be doing to prevent people from doing stupid things. I don’t personally believe that a face mask is 100% protective. You’ve got to do a lot more than just a face mask,” Jonsson said.
In response, Commissioner Benac said, “Steve, everything you’re saying about personal decisions makes so much sense, but we have to deal in reality. I think we have to take leadership. Why? Because I’ve heard from my constituency. The vast majority of people want us to do something. I don’t think anything the government is going to do is going to propel people who think it’s their right to not wear a mask to wear a mask. But I think the government is supposed to provide leadership. That is our job.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, several people spoke in favor of and in opposition to a countywide mask mandate.
David Klement, a 45-year county resident, spoke first.
“To Commissioner Jonsson, who said it’s not our role to prevent people from doing stupid things, I would say it is exactly your role. Preventing stupid people from doing stupid things saves my life. Why do you have a speed ordinance in a school zone? Why do we have a seat belt law? People of my generation are 80% more likely to have complications and die from one exposure. That is why we need an ordinance,” he said.
Bradenton resident and retired nurse Linda Crepeau said she was recently afraid to enter a local UPS store to return a package because there were six people, including the clerk, inside that limited space who were not wearing masks.
“I could not go safely into the store. There was no way for me to socially distance. I’m depending upon our government to stand up and require mandatory masks for all businesses in Manatee County,” Crepeau said.
Recently retired school nurse Mary Ann Jensen said, “On Saturday and Sunday when we’re all at home, your health care professionals will be in the hospitals watching people die, many of them alone. And all they’re asking for is your support. Please give us an ordinance because it does help.”
Impact on elections
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett pleaded with the commission to enact a mask mandate before the county election in August – to be followed by the general election in November.
“I cannot stop somebody from coming into my office and saying, ‘No, I’m coming in without a mask.’ What am I going to do? Am I going to suppress the vote? I’m not. I’m going to say the Manatee County commissioners decided they were going to suppress the vote because they weren’t going to pass an ordinance that would allow me to keep my people safe,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he’s already reduced the number of voting precincts for the August elections from 70 to 60 and he’s prepared to go to 55 if needed.
“We’re having such a hard time getting clerks and poll workers for the elections. Yesterday, I closed the precinct at Freedom Village – all senior citizens, the smallest one we’ve got – because I don’t have a clerk. I need your help. I need that ordinance,” Bennett said.
He cautioned that the absence of a mask mandate could lead to the lowest voter turnout Manatee County has ever experienced.
“I have lost close to 50% of the clerks for the elections in Manatee County who are refusing to come because Manatee County doesn’t have an ordinance to make it safe for them. If you want a good election, let’s not suppress the vote. Give me all the help I need,” Bennett said.
When expressing her opposition to a mask mandate, Bradenton resident Andra Griffin questioned why all 403,553 residents of Manatee County – according to the 2019 census – would be forced to adhere to mask guidelines when less than 2% percent of the county’s population has tested positive for COVID-19.
Griffin also referenced a warning label that appears on a box of disposable face masks and said, “It clearly states these masks do not prevent COVID-19.”
Mixon Fruit Farms owner Janet Mixon said she and her staff use UV wands to sanitize the fruit farm’s indoor public spaces, but masks are not required.
“We don’t make it mandatory. Some of our people wear masks. Some of the people coming in wear masks. At some point, we all have to make our own decision. We have to decide what keeps us safe,” Mixon said, noting that wearing a mask for a long time gives her a headache.
“Let us make our own decisions. If you start doing stuff like this, we just don’t know when it’s going to end,” she added.
County Commission candidate James Satcher said, “This is a solution looking for a problem. The free market and businesses are already making their rules. I may not like their rule, but I don’t argue that they have the right and the ability to do that. I can take my business elsewhere. Government’s different. We have a responsibility to uphold personal freedoms and the Constitution and that’s why we should not pass this ordinance.”
Additional commission comments
After public comment, Servia said, “Masks are not the silver bullet. Please don’t think that I think that those masks are going to make this virus go away. It’s not. We need to socially distance, we need to hand wash, we need to avoid large crowds. It is another tool, a simple thing that’s going to help keep this community safe.”
Commissioner Baugh said, “I don’t think that’s what we need to be doing as a government entity. America is a free country. We have the right to make our own decisions and to stand by them. We have personal responsibility that does comes into play. I wear a mask. My husband wears a mask. I recommend it highly – and I think the key word is ‘recommend.’ ”