St. Johns County Commission Shoots Down Discussion Of Mandatory Mask Ordinance

Jun 30, 2020

After hearing hours of public comment from St. Johns County residents, the County Commission decided against discussing a potential county-wide mask mandate Tuesday afternoon.

“I may stand alone when it comes to speaking against government overreach and its infringement upon liberty,” said Commission Chair Jeb Smith, “but I will not vote to implement another regulation, even on our own staff, when I have heard today that there's no need because there is not an overrun at the hospital.”

Commissioner Henry Dean attempted to get the conversation started on a mask ordinance, but no one seconded his motion for discussion.

Immediately after, Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker attempted to get a motion to direct the city administrator to implement a mask ordinance in government buildings, but that failed in a vote, 3-2. 

St. Johns County residents on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions, both in person and over the phone. Those against it said the masks were not effective, especially when many people are wearing one-use masks. Others said it would be a government overreach. 

“Yes I care for others. Yes I do not want others to get sick, but I will not wear a mask in order to make them feel safe,” one woman said.

One pawn shop business owner said the mask would make their job difficult to do. 

“We are required by law whenever we do a pawn transaction, to verify people’s identity, which we would not be able to do if people are required to wear a mask,” the business owner said. 

Those in support pointed to other large Florida cities who already have a mask ordinance in place, and its impact on limiting community spread. 

“I just came up from Palm Beach County where they did mandate face masks,” one woman said. “People just wore them.” 

Another supporter of a mandate said the argument on infringement of personal rights is flawed. 

“Otherwise, why would I have to get car insurance by law?” The caller said. “Or why would I need to vaccinate my kids for public school? Everything in this world is not all about personal choice, or we would be living in a panacea.”

A concern from Commissioner Dean was that the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office doesn’t have the “resources, the manning or the ability to enforce” a mask mandate. 

To start the meeting, the commission heard from St. Johns County Department of Health Director Dr. Dawn Allicock on the rising number of cases in the county. 

“When I last presented to this body on June 2, we had 260 positive cases,” Allicock said. “The increase in positive cases for St. Johns County has been over 400% in less than one month, and hospitalizations and the deaths from COVID-19 generally lag behind the identification of COVID-19 cases.”

Allicock also mentioned that the positivity percentage in St. Johns County is around 9%, which is indicative of community spread. 

While most survive and don’t suffer severely while positive for the coronavirus, Allicock said there are still many uncertainties on its long-term health effects in children and adults alike. 

“With the current state and local record-breaking spikes in COVID-19 cases, there are more and more reasons to wear masks or cloth face coverings,” Allicock said. “There's a growing body of research that shows wearing face coverings in public can limit the spread.”

The commissioners also heard a presentation from Flagler Hospital. Officials from the hospitals said there was enough hospital capacity, and although they were seeing a slight increase in recent weeks, there wasn’t an immediate cause for concern. 

After hearing from public commenters who claimed to be medical professionals and said the masks weren’t effective or used properly, Commissioner James Johns said he wasn’t sold on a mandate. 

“Although we do have higher cases, it generates more questions - are we mandating something in the interest of healthcare that will not be effective, [something] that cannot be enforced, just for the sake of saying ‘we heard you, we’re taking action,’ but there's no meaning behind it, there's no impact to it, and potentially causing a false sense of security that could actually exacerbate situation?” Johns questioned. 

The City of St. Augustine chose to implement an indoor mask ordinance last week, after unanimous approval. Duval County began its mask mandate Monday evening. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.