Hines again seeks action regarding use of face coverings to help prevent spread of COVID-19

Both Manatee and Charlotte county commissions this week take steps to implement mask regulations

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

Commissioner Charles Hines makes a point during the April 8 board meeting. File image

For the fourth time in about five weeks, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines has brought up the issue of county measures regarding the wearing of face coverings in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

And for the fourth time, Hines has found insufficient support for any step beyond encouraging the public to follow the guidelines of public health officials, including Florida’s Surgeon General.

Hines’ latest impetus was the fact that the Manatee County Commission had scheduled a special meeting on July 27 to address a proposed resolution requiring face coverings.

In a July 25 email to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — which Hines copied to Emergency Services Department Director Rich Collins — Hines wrote that he hoped someone in Sarasota County Administration would “be assigned to watch [the Manatee board’s] meeting and be able to summarize [the] deliberations and rationale for whatever decision they make and how that may be [applicable] to our [COVID-19] numbers and any future decision for Sarasota County.”

Then, on July 28, after the Manatee Commission voted 4-3 to approve a face covering measure, Hines sent another email to Lewis.

“Considering our regional partner Manatee County has passed a mandatory mask ordinance,” Hines began, “I’m of the position that I would like us to reconsider our position on an ordinance versus a resolution.

“Based upon our conversation yesterday,” he continued, addressing Lewis, “I understand our numbers are actually decreasing and there is room in our hospitals for patients. Despite that, medical professionals are recommending [face coverings] and the business community members I have spoken with have asked for assistance to be consistent with mask requirements.”

On July 25, the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee reported 99 new COVID-19 cases in the county, down from 176 the previous day and 198 on July 23.

By July 26, the new-case figure had fallen to 69. On July 27, however, it rose to 107. The figure dropped to 74 the next day before rising again to 105 on July 29, according to the Florida Department of Health.

This is the July 29 report on COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the latest COVID-19 testing data for Sarasota County, as of July 29. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

“I’ve heard from many business leaders that it’s difficult for them to mandate people coming into their businesses to wear a mask and [that] puts them in a difficult situation of being ‘the bad guy,’” Hines continued in his July 28 email. “I’m not in favor of heavy fines or law enforcement involvement,” Hines added. “What I’d like to see accomplished is something similar to Manatee County, a warning and then potentially a fine through our code enforcement and only when the situation is blatant.”

The Manatee County resolution requires any individual in a business establishment to wear a face covering. The measure does not apply to situations in which people can maintain separation of 6 or more feet from others. However, food and beverage preparation employees in dining establishments and “employees serving food or beverages” must wear face coverings, the resolution says.

The measure does exempt children under the age of 6 and persons “who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition or individuals with a documented or demonstrable medical problem.”

A violation of the resolution is not a criminal infraction, the document says. Before any citation is issued, it continues, an individual will be asked to comply with the resolution or “be able to explain” how he or she is exempt from the requirement, as outlined in the resolution.

For a first offense, a written warning would be issued; for a second offense, a $50 fine would be imposed; for a third offense; a $125 fine; and for a fourth and each subsequent offense, the fine would rise to $250.

Dr. Jennifer Bencie. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health in Manatee County

A news release on the Manatee County website points out that the Manatee Commission’s special meeting on July 27 began with an update on the COVID-19 conditions that day, plus “an extended update from Dr. Jennifer Bencie, director of the Department of Health in Manatee County. Bencie said the local medical community estimates as much as 48 percent of Manatee County residents may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic phase and spreading the coronavirus.

“‘That’s why masks are vital,’ Bencie said,” as quoted on the website. “‘The evidence is clear that masks help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the more people that wear masks, the better. There are three W’s to ward off COVID-19: Wearing a mask, washing your hands and watching your distance. Of the three the most important is wearing a mask.’”

Bencie cited a study, the website continued, that found mask mandates led to a slowdown in daily COVID-19 growth rates,  “which became more apparent over time.”

A day after the Manatee County Commission took its action, the Charlotte County Commission adopted a face covering resolution that, according to that county’s website, says “every person living, working, visiting or doing business in unincorporated Charlotte County, including government buildings, shall, in the absence of social distancing, wear a face covering in any indoor location, other than a home or residence.”

Signs will be posted at Charlotte County facilities and distributed to businesses via the Charlotte County, Englewood and Punta Gorda chambers of commerce, the Charlotte County Government website added.

In spite of the local government actions to the north and south of the Sarasota County line, no special meeting has been called for the Sarasota County Commission to consider either a face covering resolution or ordinance, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader on July 29.

Past attempts

During the Sarasota County Commission’s budget workshops conducted on July 1 and 2, Hines brought up the issue of face coverings.

While Commissioner Nancy Detert indicated support for the encouragement of the wearing of face masks, she also expressed her unwillingness to sit through hours of public testimony during a special meeting to consider board action.

Other commissioners were adamant that they would not approve any directive requiring the wearing of masks.

Finally, Hines won unanimous support for staff promulgation of the following statement: “All individuals in Florida should wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible.”

Chair Michael Moran. File image

Chair Michael Moran stressed to County Administrator Lewis that the public notice “shouldn’t deviate an ounce” from what Hines had proposed; Commissioner Alan Maio concurred.

Once again, on July 8, as the board members were conducting their final regular session prior to their traditional summer vacation, Hines said that while the commissioners were on break, if staff saw the totals of new COVID-19 cases dropping in jurisdictions where face-covering measures had been adopted, he would hope that Lewis would consider issuing an executive order requiring masks or request that the commissioners conduct a special meeting on the topic.

On July 11, in an email to Collins of Emergency Services, Hines wrote, “Our Commission, for various reasons, was not willing to issue a mandatory [mask] order. However, I would hope we would be willing to reconsider that position should evidence from other [counties] indicate the mask order, rather than a strong recommendation, is slowing the spread of the virus.”

As of July 29, Sarasota County had had a total of 342 hospitalizations of people for treatment of COVID-19 since March, when the first patient was reported.

The number of deaths in Sarasota County through July 29 was 119, the Florida Department of Health update said.

A week earlier, on July 22, the number of deaths stood at 110, with total hospitalizations reported as 309 in Sarasota County.

Additionally, late in the afternoon of July 30, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant announced three more county employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since July 24, as follows:

  • Capital Projects — 1 employee.
  • Emergency Services — 1 employee.
  • Sarasota County Fire Department — 1 employee.

“Each department is working with the Florida Department of Health in the process of contact tracing,” she added, and thorough cleaning has been performed in each employee’s workspace and in common areas the employee may have used.