After weeks of debate and increasing concern about the health and safety of Manatee County’s public, county commissioners voted 4-3 on July 27 in support of a resolution requiring the wearing of facial coverings inside businesses to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The resolution makes exceptions including when proper social distancing of 6 feet can be practiced indoors, for children under the age of 6 and for restaurant and bar patrons while eating or drinking.
It considers a violation to be a noncriminal infraction with fines starting at $50 after a first-offense warning.
Businesses must notify the public of the rule via signage.
“I certainly agree we shouldn’t have to mandate this, but the reality is we do have to mandate it because people aren’t wearing masks,” Chairwoman Betsy Benac said. “They don’t think it’s necessary. They think it’s their prerogative to make decisions about themselves, but it’s about public safety.”
Commissioners Benac, Carol Whitmore, Misty Servia and Reggie Bellamy supported the resolution, and commissioners Steve Jonsson, Vanessa Baugh and Priscilla Trace voted against it.
“I think it’s wrong on so many different levels,” Jonsson said. “I think it’s a bad policy decision.”
During the July 27 meeting, Florida Department of Health Manatee County health officer Jennifer Bencie reported that Manatee County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests currently is around 11%.
Bencie said wearing a mask, hand washing and social distancing are the three most important ways the public can combat spread of the coronavirus. She said individuals who contract the virus take five days to two weeks to show symptoms, but they can spread it even before symptoms begin. Additionally, she said an estimated 48% of individuals being tested who do not show symptoms are testing positive.
“Of the three [prevention methods], the most important is wearing a mask,” Bencie said. “Since COVID-19 is in the nose and mouth, this virus easier to escape when people cough, talk, sneeze. We want to [reduce] transmission of the droplets.”
Advocates of the mask requirement — many of whom are in the medical community — supported Bencie’s comments. Individuals including Lakewood Ranch Medical Center emergency room physician Dr. Alicia Rech said ICU beds were full and that COVID-19 was impacting hospitals in a way she has never seen in her decade of medicine.
“It’s terrifying,” she said of the situation. “I’m living away from my family since March. I’m scared when I see people without masks because I don’t want people to spread it to me. I feel like it’s a small sacrifice [to make others wear masks].”
Opponents said the mandate violates their rights and does not make sense when so few are infected.
“The mask is not the save-all,” Palmetto’s Joseph Leitenberger said.
Commissioners opted not to adopt a face mask ordinance, instead deciding to review the resolution publicly on a regular basis in the coming weeks.