A mask mandate

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Posted August 7, 2020 | By Brad Rogers, Executive Editor

On a day when Marion County announced 12 new death due to COVID-19, and the number of positive cases in the county neared 5,500 – including 4,702 since July 1 – the Ocala City Council voted on Tuesday to enact an emergency ordinance requiring all people entering businesses and government buildings within the city to don masks.

The measure, a retooled version of an ordinance introduced by Councilman Matt Wardell two weeks ago, would require people to don a mask anytime they enter a business, house of worship or government building within the city. The lone dissenter on the council was Councilman Jay Musleh.

The ordinance, which as an emergency ordinance will expire 60 days after Mayor Kent Guinn either signs it or, after 10 days, it becomes law without his signature.

The ordinance states: “Each owner, manager, employee, guest, customer or patron of a business establishment must wear a face covering while in such business establishment.” The ordinance provides a host of exceptions, including for children under age 7, people who have medical reasons for not wearing a mask, people who are exercising and maintaining 6 feet of social distance and a business’ employees who are in an area not open to customers.

The ordinance took a different approach to one Wardell introduced two weeks ago, which placed the burden of adhering to a mask mandate on individuals. When Police Chief Greg Graham said it would be a burden on his department to enforce that ordinance, Wardell regrouped and presented Tuesday’s version.

As city attorney Rob Batsel told the council, this ordinance does not attempt to require individuals to wear masks, but rather it requires businesses to require masks.

“The attempt here is to seek voluntary compliance,” he said.

Businesses will be required to do four things to adhere to the law:

  • Post a sign on their front door declaring masks must be worn in the business.
  • Announce over the intercom, if the business has one, that masks must be worn by patrons.
  • Require all employees to wear masks.
  • Make “a reasonable effort” to get patrons to wear masks.

A half dozen citizens spoke against the ordinance, some dismissing the notion that masks have any effect on curtailing the coronavirus, others bemoaning government intrusion into their lives.

“I don’t think I need government to tell me what I have to do to protect myself,” Lucy Sullivan said.

“Is this about a virus or an election?” asked Rock Gibboney. “What you’re looking at is unconstitutional.”

“A mask serves as a false sense of security,” said Bridgette Smith, calling the mandate “modern-day involuntary servitude.”

Kevin Sheilley, president/CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership, expressed concerns over businesses being held responsible for the actions of individuals.

“My concern here is we’re going after the wrong target.,” he said.

There were also a handful of pro-mask speakers, including Susie Kuhn, a nurse whose husband, Dr. David Kuhn, last month helped spearhead a letter to the council signed by some 700 local physicians and other health care professionals beseeching it to pass a mask mandate.

Kuhn noted that 12 people had died in Marion County on Tuesday from COVID-19. She further pointed out that two weeks ago, the county had experienced 33 deaths since the pandemic’s outbreak. But in the past two weeks, 43 people have died. Finally, she said, of the more than 5,400 positive cases of COVID-19 reported across Marion County since the beginning of the pandemic, more than half had occurred in the past two weeks.

Council members made clear their intent is not to punish people but rather to encourage mask wearing.

“I think most of us want to follow the law,” Wardell said.

Councilman Justin Grabelle said the mask mandate enhances the chances of keeping businesses open.

“We can poke holes in everything,” Grabelle said. “But overall, I think masks work. … We can’t let perfect get in the way of good.”

Noting that he has six friends who are ill with the virus, Councilman Brent Malever said the council needed “to be proactive in some way.”

“We need to do something to help the people,” he said. “That’s why we were elected.”

Musleh, the lone dissenter to the ordinance, explained his problem is not with masks but with mandates. He said he believes people should wear masks when they can’t socially distance as a matter of respect for their fellow man, then added, “People, wear your damn masks!”

There are relatively mild, noncriminal penalties available for violating the ordinance. Council members, however, showed little interest in doing so. Plus, if a business meets the four previously mentioned requirements, they are in compliance, even if a maskless customer is not. Nonetheless, the ordinance calls for the follow responses to reported infractions:

  • First offense, a verbal warning.
  • Second offense, a written warning.
  • Third and all subsequent offenses,  a $25 fine.
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