City Council overrides Guinn veto, requires face coverings in businesses, churches

City Councilman Matt Wardell speaks in favor of an emergency ordinance to require face coverings during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The City Council voted 3-2 against the emergency mask ordinance suggested by Councilman Matt Wardell that would have required people in Ocala to wear face coverings in indoor locations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted August 13, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

[Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

Mask up, Ocala.

During an emergency meeting on Wednesday, a supermajority of the Ocala City Council overrode Mayor Kent Guinn’s veto of a mandatory face-covering ordinance. The 4-1 decision triggered the local law immediately, meaning businesses, including churches, hotels and government agencies, must require all patrons to wear some type of face covering upon entering and remaining inside.

The council indicated it would revisit the ordinance, which expires 60 days after adoption unless rescinded earlier, during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

During Wednesday’s session, council members expressed openness to entertaining revisions, including Councilman Brent Malever’s condition that houses of worship be excluded.

Behind the scenes, Malever had been considered a pivotal vote.

He voted against the original ordinance as it was proposed last month, but then voted for a revised, softer version on Aug. 4. Malever reiterated on Wednesday that he supports mask-wearing and the ordinance. But he also signaled that he may vote to sustain Guinn’s veto, issued Monday, if churches were not removed from the mandate. He also advocated for relieving business owners of the “risk,” as he put it, for violating it.

Malever ultimately joined the supermajority after the rest of the council indicated they would reconsider his recommendations next week.

City Attorney Rob Batsel told the board prior to the meeting that they could not make any changes to the ordinance on Wednesday. Legally, he said, considering Guinn’s veto was the only subject of the session.

Council President Jay Musleh dissented in the vote on Wednesday, although he added that he “wholeheartedly” supported wearing masks.

The ordinance carries no weight outside the city of Ocala. But people who live outside the city who visit Ocala to work or conduct business must comply.

Children under age 7 are exempt, as are people with pre-existing medical conditions who “cannot tolerate a facial covering” for medical reasons.

The provision for government agencies would not appear to apply to the Sheriff’s Office, where Sheriff Billy Woods on Tuesday prohibited masks for employees or guests within the agency’s Ocala headquarters.

Restaurants, bars and theaters are excluded as long as people are sitting and eating or drinking. But those patrons must wear masks as they navigate to their seats or the exits.

The law also does not mandate masks for business owners, managers and employees who work in areas that is not open to customers, so long as they can maintain six feet of social distancing. That does not apply to food or beverage preparers.

The ordinance says the city seeks “voluntary” compliance. And those who don’t comply will be given an opportunity to do so.

But failing that, the business owner will be given a verbal warning, followed by a written warning for a second offense, and then a $25 citation for any subsequent violations.

Councilman Malever said that in addition to churches he believed the ordinance should be altered to put the onus on members of the public rather than business owners.

About 25 people addressed the council during the session, which was carried via Zoom.

Slightly more of those who addressed the council criticized Guinn’s veto than supported the mayor, with some using terms like “irresponsible” and “reckless.”

They noted the spike in positive cases in recent weeks, and the petition from hundreds of local healthcare professionals in favor of the ordinance, as reasons Guinn’s veto should be rejected.

“The recommendation from our medical community in our great city says it all to me,” said John Schaefer, who urged the board to override Guinn.

“If I have a car problem, I take it to a mechanic. If I have an electrical problem, I call an electrician. If I have a dental problem, I go see a dentist. If I have a medical problem, I go see my doctor. So who I look at in this pandemic, which is extremely serious in our city, is the medical community. … When I have the medical community in my town tell me for my benefit, and my neighbors, that I should be wearing a mask when I’m out in public, that’s enough for me.”

On the other hand, Guinn’s supporters praised his willingness to respect individual liberty and to curtail government overreach.

Floyd Magwood said the “science was mixed,” and noted whether masks work is a city-by-city proposition. He said he had family members who wore masks and still got sick from COVID-19.

“I don’t care what you say. You can look it up from very well known scientists and doctors, you see information on both sides,” Magwood said, noting that an unresolved issue if the type of mask.

“Are we going to start requiring people to wear goggles, because even with the mask, the virus can still get into your eyes?” he added. “I think we need to err on the side of freedom, and not follow this mob rule, and let people decide.”

“When I go into the store, sometimes I may have my mask on. But the majority of the time I have the ability to social distance from people. And that’s called personal responsibility and we’re continuing to tear down the art of personal responsibility when the government continues to become our Mommy and Daddy. And we’ve got to say no to that. We’ve got to convince people without mandates, and without enforcement of our police department.”

When the council took up the debate after public comments, Mayor Guinn explained that his veto was rooted in concerns about enforcement and forcing people to disclose sensitive medical information in order to justify not wearing a mask.

Still, other than Musleh, the rest of the council was adamant about overturning the veto, even as they remained open to changes that may remove the burden from churches and business owners.

Councilman Ire Bethea Sr., for example, said he could not support the veto, and argued for masks from personal experience, having been hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We need to be respectful of others, even if we don’t care about ourselves,” he said. “I don’t know where I got it from …, but this thing is not a joke.”

“We don’t seem to understand that this thing is real out here,” Bethea added, “We are our brother’s keeper. As a councilperson, to me, this is the least that we can do to try to come up with some type of mandate to impress upon citizens how important it is to look out for one another. And the mask is the first step.”


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