Mandatory mask ordinance in City of Sarasota amended to allow use of face shields, but proposal to require children under 18 to wear face coverings fails

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Brody cite enforcement issues regarding children

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

This article was updated on the afternoon of July 24 to correct the number of free masks the city has distributed.

A City of Sarasota staff member gives away one of approximately 15,000 masks the city has distributed. Image courtesy City of Sarasota via Twitter

Failing to achieve the necessary “supermajority” vote of four board members on one proposal this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved a solitary tweak to the mandatory face-covering ordinance they passed on June 29 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

On a unanimous vote, the commissioners agreed to amend the law to say, “‘Face Covering’ shall mean a uniform piece of material that securely covers a person’s nose and mouth and remains affixed in place without the use of one’s hands, whether store-bought or homemade, concurrent with CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, or a clear face shield that covers a person’s eyes, nose and mouth which wraps around the sides of the face and extends to below the chin.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody opposed a measure Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested during the July 6 board meeting, which would have lowered the age for mandatory face coverings from 18 to 6 and older.

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

Such a provision, Freeland Eddie stressed, “is not legally enforceable, and I’m surprised our city attorney hasn’t told us that. There’s no way we should be enforcing [a mask requirement for anyone younger than 18].”

The proposed tweak to that portion of the ordinance said, “If a person is under the age of 6, use of a face covering is left to the discretion of that person’s parent, guardian, or accompanying adult, except that persons under the age of 2 are not required to wear a mask under any circumstances as CDC guidelines state that a face covering is not appropriate for this age group.”

During his presentation on the proposed amendments, City Attorney Robert Fournier suggested that the commissioners could address them on separate motions.

As she had on July 6, Ahearn-Koch noted that her primary impetus for suggesting the lower age limit was that other jurisdictions in the area require masks for people younger than 18. For example, she said then and again on July 20, the Town of Longboat Key’s mask requirement applies to any child 6 and older.

“I think it’s important to try to be consistent with other jurisdictions around us,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. She feels children up to age 6 are too young to be required to wear masks, she added.

“I understand we’re not enforcing the outdoor mask requirement anyway,” Commissioner Brody pointed out.

(The ordinance calls for the wearing of masks outside when persons are unable to practice social distancing, as recommended by the CDC.)

“If you’re ticketing [violators],” Brody added, “are you ticketing the 6-year-old or the parent?”

“I think you’d have to ticket the parent,” Fournier replied, which is why he originally suggested 18 as the age limit, he noted.

“Can we legally ticket the 6-year-old?” Brody asked.

“I haven’t really looked into that,” Fournier said. “We haven’t issued citations. … If this is passed, we’ll work out a policy that makes sense.”

“We’re not making much sense on this,” Brody told him, “so good luck ticketing the 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds in this community. I’m not going to have any part of that.”

City Commissioner Liz Alpert makes a point during a June 15 discussion. File image

Commissioner Liz Alpert responded that she hoped 6- and 7-year-olds would not be out in the community without their parents.

When Ahearn-Koch called for a motion, Alpert made it, calling for both proposed changes to be incorporated into the city ordinance — the lower age and the allowed use of face shields.

It failed on a 3-2 vote, as four affirmative votes were needed.

Another try and a debate over enforcement

Then, at Ahearn-Koch’s suggestion, Alpert proposed a motion just to incorporate the face shield change into the ordinance. That passed unanimously.

When Ahearn-Koch asked for another motion regarding the age limit, Alpert said she would offer that, as well. However, Alpert continued, perhaps only children older than 12 should be required to wear face coverings. “Teenagers … are out there congregating, taking the virus home to their parents. Certainly,” she continued, “by the age of 12, they ought to be responsible for wearing a mask.”

“A 12-year-old cannot legally consent,” Freeland Eddie countered.

When Alpert replied that other communities are enforcing a lower age limit than 18, Freeland Eddie told her that that was not true.

Then Fournier explained that he believes other jurisdictions with lower age limits are contacting parents about children’s violations.

Among the comments she has received from the public, Ahearn-Koch said, is the fact that a 15-year-old can get a permit to drive a care. Therefore, the 15-year-old “certainly should be responsible enough for wearing a face covering. … Parents would get cited [for violations]. … The idea of arresting 6-year-olds is not being proposed here.”

Ahearn-Koch stressed, “I think the bigger picture issue here is that we should send the message that masks should be worn. We should be learning to wear them. … It keeps everybody safe.”

The city’s leaders could teach children the importance of face coverings by enforcing the ordinance against their parents, “to start,” Freeland Eddie pointed out.

“I’m OK with that,” Ahearn-Koch responded.

Then Alpert told her colleagues that her 4-year-old granddaughter has to wear a mask to participate in certain activities. “She doesn’t object to it. … I think [children have] the capability of understanding these things at a very young age, and the parents need to understand … it’s for everyone’s safety.”

This July 21 data provided by the Florida Department of Health regarding COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County breaks down the ages of those who have been infected, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, since the pandemic began. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

She added that a friend of hers has a 4-year-old with COVID-19, though the symptoms, she noted, have not been bad. Still, Alpert said, children with the virus can infect others.

“I just think you’re confusing a rule with a law,” Commissioner Brody responded. “You don’t pass a law that’s unenforceable.”

City staff had told him the city ordinance is not enforceable, Brody pointed out. “I can’t even imagine living in a community where we have Code Enforcement officers running around after 12-year-olds and police officers stopping 12- and 13-year-olds. … This is just a total abuse of our police powers.”

City Manager Tom Barwin participates in the June 15 meeting via the Webex videoconferencing technology. File image

In response to a question from Ahearn-Koch about enforcement of the city ordinance, City Manager Tom Barwin explained, “We’ve been encouraging, informing, educating. … If necessary, there may be occasions … where we have to write citations.”

Then Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown explained that staff was still at work on creating a citation specific to the mask ordinance. He had told Brody, Brown added, that staff’s efforts have been on compliance without issuing citations.

Later, Barwin noted, “We’re seeing good compliance with our mandatory mask ordinance; not perfect, but very, very good.”

Lack of sufficient support sinks age tweak

Acknowledging the need for the supermajority vote, Ahearn-Koch asked Freeland Eddie what she would suggest in regard to any revision of the ordinance regarding age limits.

Because staff has not been citing violators thus far, Freeland Eddie replied, “I think we’re being hypocritical” to talk about lowering the age in the ordinance and then warning children and their parents.

After all, Freeland Eddie continued, the 15-year-old with a learner’s permit has to comply with a number of requirements before the teen can get that permit.

If staff begins enforcing the ordinance when adults violate it, Freeland Eddie added, she believes parents will be more careful about ensuring their children wear face coverings.

The issue is not about blame, Ahearn-Koch replied. “It’s about sending the message that COVID-19 is here. … Our numbers [of infections] are spiking … and time and time again,” medical experts have called for the wearing of masks in public to prevent the spread of the virus, along with social distancing and good hand hygiene.

Ahearn-Koch added that she believes 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds should be aware that they need to wear masks; if they are not doing so, they should get a warning in the city.

Freeland Eddie objected to that. “It’s a big deal when you get cited by a police officer for doing something.”

Moreover, Freeland Eddie continued, if a teen were cited and had to pay a fine, the teen would have a permanent record in the criminal justice system. Afterward, on any application the teen filled out, she said, if the application asked whether the teen had been cited for any criminal violations, the teen would have to respond in the affirmative.

Ahearn-Koch then dropped the idea of seeking another motion regarding an age amendment to the ordinance, acknowledging that she knew it would fail.