Sarasota County leaders will not pursue mask-wearing ordinance because of enforcement concerns

Sarasota mayor calls for emergency City Commission meeting on the topic

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

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis makes a point during the May 21 budget workshop. File image

In an email sent shortly before 10 a.m. on June 23, Sarasota County Administrator told the county commissioners that staff recommended against an ordinance or executive order requiring the wearing of masks in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“While it may be legal if written properly,” Lewis wrote, such an ordinance or order “is not enforceable in a practical way.”

Lewis continued, “In addition, the public health advice is still for people to use good sense in social distancing and when you can’t it is advised to wear a mask. People should also use good sense, if they go somewhere and people are not socially distancing or using good hygiene, make the decision and leave. Personal judgement still seems to be the most effective tool in our fight to slow the spread of the virus and protect our hospitals.”

Finally, Lewis wrote, “The advice is still based on the idea that the mask is more effective in protecting others from the wearer, not the other way around.”

He copied Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, and Richard Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department.

Just a day earlier, Commissioner Charles Hines had asked Lewis to give him a call when Lewis had time “to discuss anything that you learned over the weekend from other communities that have implemented the mask wearing requirement please. I’m curious as to the enforcement issues with this and what public service announcements we are going to implement, to “recommend mask wearing as we discussed on Friday.”

Hines further asked that if the county’s “subject matter experts are going to recommend that we proceed with some type of ordinance,” how should that be pursued — by emergency meeting, after a discussion next week during one of the board’s budget workshops, or through an emergency order that Lewis would issue.

During a June 25 Facebook Live interview with county Communications Department Director Donn Patchen, Henry of the Health Department urged people to wear masks, especially when they will be indoors and the potential exists that social distancing will not be possible. Likewise, Henry continued, if people will be outdoors but they cannot ensure social distancing, they should wear masks.

Henry explained that masks prevent people who may have the virus, but who have no symptoms, from spreading it to others. “We see [wearing masks] as a responsibility of all of us, as citizens, to protect our community and to protect each other, especially our vulnerable population,” Henry said.

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

“At the same time,” Henry added, “Hand washing continues to be really important to reduce the spread of the virus.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water. Using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content is an alternative, Henry noted during the Facebook Live interview.

While county leaders have backed away from the idea of requiring the wearing of masks, leaders of the City of Sarasota are proceeding with the prospect of implementing a mask-wearing directive, as indicated by city emails, The Sarasota News Leader learned.

On the afternoon of June 22, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch wrote an email to Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, City Manager Tom Barwin and City Attorney Robert Fournier, saying she would like to request an emergency City Commission meeting either this week — on June 25 — or on Monday, June 29 to discuss the issue.

Ahearn-Koch noted in her email that she envisioned an ordinance requiring masks for people in indoor spaces and those who are outdoors in situations “when physical distancing is not available.”

She indicated that she had talked with Fournier about such a proposal.

That special City Commission meeting has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Monday, June 29, according to the City of Sarasota’s public meetings webpage. It will be conducted by virtual meeting technology.

This is the state’s June 19 ‘dashboard’ showing Sarasota County COVID-19 data. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
This is the Sarasota County COVID-19 chart on the Florida Department of Health website as of the morning of June 25. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health
These are the graphics relating to emergency room visits in Sarasota County, as of June 24, verified on the morning of June 25 by the Florida Department of Health. Image courtesy Florida Department of Health

In the meantime, Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino is encouraging people to wear masks in public. That recommendation came in a June 25 news release, which also announced that three sworn patrol officers with the Sarasota Police Department have tested positive for COVID-19. “These are the first three positive cases for the agency,” Public Information Officer Genevieve Judge wrote.  “All three officers are at home on quarantine.”

Along with wearing masks, the release added, DiPino is encouraging people to practice social distancing and to wash their hands.  “These actions could prevent citizens and Sarasota Police officers from contracting COVID-19,” the release pointed out.

On June 20, the Florida Department of Health issued an advisory that recommended “[a]ll individuals in Florida should wear masks in any setting where social distancing is not possible,” except in specific circumstances.

For example, the department does not advise the use of masks for children under the age of 2; if an “individual has one or more medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing a face covering”; or if “[a]n individual works in a profession where use of a face covering will not be compatible with the duties of the profession …”