Face mask ordinance in effect in city of Sarasota as of 12:01 a.m. July 1

Several exceptions approved, including one that allows people to be outside without masks if they can practice social distancing

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

Free masks rest on a table outside an entrance to City Hall in downtown Sarasota. City staff made the masks available on June 30 and July 1, following the passage of the new ordinance on June 29. Image courtesy City of Sarasota via Facebook

It took nearly four hours — including time out early on to resolve technical difficulties — but the Sarasota City Commission finally voted 4-1 to approve an ordinance requiring the wearing of face masks in an effort to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That supermajority was necessary because of the city’s rules of order regarding the convening of the emergency meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch had called for the June 29 session to address concerns over the spikes in COVID-19 cases both statewide and in Sarasota County.

Commissioner Hagen Brody cast the “No” vote, arguing repeatedly that it would be impossible to enforce use of face coverings in outdoor settings. He tried multiple times to convince his colleagues to approve an ordinance for indoor situations and a separate one for outdoor settings. Finally, when he put forth a motion to initiate that process, he was unable to garner a second.

“It’s just asinine,” Brody said at one point, referring to any effort to try to regulate the wearing of masks outside. “We don’t need to be going that far.”

During their discussion, the commissioners, by consensus, did approve a number of tweaks to the proposed regulations, which Fournier had crafted on the basis of the City of Tampa ordinance regarding the wearing of face masks.

The city commissioners conduct their special session on June 29 via the Webex virtual meeting technology. They are joined by City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs, City Manager Tom Barwin, City Attorney Robert Fournier and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. News Leader image

For example, on a suggestion by Commissioner Liz Alpert, the section about outdoor settings made it clear that people would not have to cover their noses and mouths if they were exercising or if they were able to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between themselves and other persons.

In fact, even the phrase “social distancing” was tweaked, in compliance with what Ahearn-Koch noted was the more recently accepted term, “physical distancing.”

Additionally, persons under the age of 18 and those “for whom a face covering would cause impairment due to an existing health condition” will be exempt.

Further, the minimum fine for violation of the ordinance would be $50, instead of $100 — also at Alpert’s recommendation — while the maximum would be $500. People who contested a citation would be able to make their case to a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate, Fournier explained. That magistrate would decide the final amount of fine, he added.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie also argued for an option that would not necessitate a fine. Fournier suggested that community service would be a possible alternative. Ultimately, as Ahearn-Koch was working to conclude the meeting by 5:30 p.m. — two hours after the advertised ending time of 3:30 p.m. — the board members agreed to consider that during their regular meeting on July 6.

“I’m fine with you bringing something back,” Freeland Eddie told Fournier.

Among other exceptions, the ordinance does not apply to schools, daycare facilities and government agencies outside the city’s jurisdiction. Further, it allows people working in a business or profession who do not interact with persons, and who maintain physical or social distancing from others, to forgo masks. Yet another exception regards people for whom face coverings would prevent the performance of their duties.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch makes a point during the regular meeting on May 4. File image

Early on, Ahearn-Koch had explained that the board members would be able to amend the ordinance while it was in effect.

All violations would be considered non-criminal, City Attorney Fournier explained. Either a Sarasota Police Department officer or a city Code Enforcement Division officer would be able to issue a citation, Fournier said.

Ahearn-Koch emphasized that warnings would be issued initially, with city staff offering a face mask to any person found in violation of the ordinance.

After the vote, Fournier reminded the board members that the new regulations would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, July 1. He added that he expected no difficulty in being able to amend the various sections in time, based on their discussions.

The new regulations will be in effect for 60 days, Fournier pointed out. However, the commission could extend that period, he said.

Laying the groundwork

In opening the meeting, Ahearn-Koch talked of the rise in the number of positive cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the state, in the county and in the city itself. She said that over the past week, she and her colleagues had received between 700 and 800 emails on the subject of a face mask requirement, with 70% of the correspondents urging the board members to adopt such a measure.

“Fourteen [Florida] counties and 37 cities have all recently enacted mandated face covering requirements,” she continued. Gov. Ron DeSantis has not issued any state directive that prevents local governments from taking such a step, Ahearn-Koch pointed out.

“We swore an oath to protect the health, safety and welfare of our community,” she reminded her colleagues.

As of that day, she noted, 146,341 COVID-19 cases had been reported in the state; 1,451 of those were in Sarasota County, which also had recorded 96 deaths.

This is the June 29 report on COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County, based on data through June 28. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the June 30 Sarasota County COVID-19 report, based on data through June 29. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

The city population is about 14% of the county’s total, Ahearn-Koch said; yet, as of that day, about 38% of the cases in the county had originated in the city, “which is a disproportionate amount.”

City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners that the latest data for Sarasota County, from the Florida Department of Health, showed 278 new test results that day, with 12.4% of them positive, “which is the highest percentage here in our county over the last 10 days.

This is the COVID-19 testing data for Sarasota County as of the morning of June 29, reflecting data collected through June 28. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

Additionally, Barwin said, between the June 25 advertisement of the special meeting and 1 p.m. that day, the city had received 320 calls, with 281 of those in support of a mask ordinance. “In my eight years here, this has been the largest volume of calls [on a particular subject], with perhaps the most concern behind them.”

About 50% of the callers were city residents, Barwin noted, while most of the others were people who work in the city or who regularly come into the city for business reasons or to dine or shop.

Ahearn-Koch also read excerpts from two of the emails the commissioners had received — one from Michael Klauber, co-owner of the restaurant Michael’s on East as well as co-founder of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, which comprises more than 60 dining establishments in the two counties; and one from Dr. Washington Hill, a Sarasota physician. Both strongly supported passage of the proposed ordinance, she noted.

Finally, Ahearn-Koch read the entirety of correspondence she had received from Dr. Manuel Gordillo, Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s chief epidemiologist. Dated June 28, that email said the following:

“The recent widespread rise in the incidence of COVID 19 occurring in many counties throughout Florida including Sarasota is deeply concerning. As the Hospital Epidemiologist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital I am worried at the rise in hospitalizations occurring over the past few weeks. The SARS CoV2 virus high rate of transmissibility has the capability of exponential growth, and can potentially double the number of cases every 4 days. If this growth rate continues unmitigated it can overwhelm even the best prepared health care systems.

“In the absence of an effective vaccine or antiviral treatments, our only effective mitigation tools before the undesirable lockdowns are the low tech but tried and true hygienic measures, physical distancing and face masks,” he continued.

“What we have learned since January is that wearing a cloth mask or other suitable masks (surgical, medical, procedural and faceshields) will at the very least effectively protect people in close proximity to the wearer and to some degree protect the person wearing it. These devices are not perfect and it is almost certain there will not be a perfect mask available to everyone in the near future. But we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially during a public health emergency where so many lives and livelihoods are on the line. I implore and appeal to your sense of solidarity, altruism and selflessness to pass a face mask mandate now to help control the advance of the epidemic. Incrimination, discrimination and selfishness will strongly favor the pandemic of the century,” Gordillo wrote.

Eleven members of the public addressed the board during the meeting, with the majority in opposition to the ordinance.

Facets of the debate

Commissioner Hagen Brody offers comments during the June 15 meeting. File image

During the discussion, Commissioner Brody repeatedly stressed his concerns about any requirements for masks in outdoor settings.

For example, he said, “Four people go for a walk over the [Ringling] Bridge,” but they are not practicing social distancing or wearing face masks. “I don’t want to criminalize or penalize that conduct.”

“I think we should really focus on what we can do indoors,” Brody said. “That’s where the contact is, with the employees [of businesses].”

A person at a restaurant without a mask could infect a server, Brody continued, and that server, in turn, could infect many other people.

(The ordinance does exempt people from wearing masks while eating or drinking.)

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie repeatedly countered Brody’s arguments, emphasizing that asymptomatic people could infect others, even outdoors, if they were not wearing masks. She also talked about the need for people walking up to tables outside restaurants to cover their faces. The city has allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor seating areas, she pointed out. Yet, “We know that those seats are not 6 feet apart for the most part.”

Moreover, Freeland Eddie said, family members walking together outside might be unable to distance themselves from others. “That’s where the mask requirement kicks in. … It isn’t just for us; it’s for the folks that we come in contact with.”

“There’re so many unpredictable scenarios outdoors,” Brody responded. If a situation involving people passing on the sidewalk led to a citation, he continued, “I think that in court it would look silly.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie offers a comment during the June 15 City Commission meeting, which was conducted via Webex technology. File image

Finally, Commissioner Liz Alpert made a motion to amend the proposed language regarding use of masks outdoors to make it clear that face coverings will not be required as long as people can maintain social or physical distancing.

That motion passed 4-1, with Brody in the minority.

At one point, Freeland Eddie made a motion calling for approval simply of a face mask ordinance, with the exceptions to be determined afterward. Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

“To me, this is ‘bass ackwards,’” Brody told his colleagues. “This is the silliest way to do this.”

Alpert added that she would be uncomfortable supporting that, without having the exceptions delineated.

City Attorney Fournier offered caution about that approach, as well, explaining that every exception would need a supermajority vote of approval.

Freeland Eddie then withdrew the motion.