The mask is a must: Leon County makes face coverings mandatory to stem coronavirus spread

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Enforcing a Leon County Commission-backed mandate that face masks be worn in public may be the toughest thing about the controversial measure unanimously approved Tuesday.

In a special meeting, the entire commission voted to create an emergency ordinance that would go into effect at midnight June 25. The emergency ordinance will remain in place until repealed.

The requirement to wear masks – which prevents the spread of coronavirus – has overwhelming community support, based on a review of electronically submitted public comments.

In a separate motion, the commission approved a civil fine schedule of $50, for the first infraction, $125 for the second and a court appearance and fine up to $250 for a third. Anyone in violation would not be subject to search and arrest for the non-criminal offense.

Shortly after the measure was approved, Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power announced he was going to file a lawsuit against the mask requirement.

Leon County Health Administrator Claudia Blackburn said that the growing number of cases in Leon County and in some other parts of the state could signal an ongoing issue linked to the state’s reopening plan.

She said that in addition to the 110 confirmed cases in the last week, an additional 114 “probable cases” connected to rapid tests – which provide results in minutes but also clogged traffic this week – must be investigated.

“There is a lot of hanging out and going to parties and hanging out and not wearing face coverings and not social distancing,” Blackburn told commissioners.

The measure requires anyone inside a business, church or on public transit, under a roof, to wear a mask, defined as a face covering that fits snugly against the sides of the face and covers nose and face.

It allows exceptions for:

  • children under six
  • people with underlying medical issues or preexisting conditions
  • public safety and emergency officials
  • outdoor exercise or exercise with at least 6-feet of distance between people
  • patrons of restaurants and bars who are eating and drinking
  • and business employees when in an area not open to customers when they can social distance. Workers preparing food must still wear a face covering.

The county attorney said state and federal buildings are not exempt.

The Commission’s decision comes after more than 111 new cases of the respiratory disease were identified in town across the past seven days, one of which logged 49. Statewide, cases continue to climb as testing increases at the same time the percentage of positive cases does.

Florida surpassed 100,000 cases Monday and multiple private and governmental health agencies, including the Florida Department of Health and State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, recommended that all individuals wear a mask if they are not able to keep at least 6-feet of distance from others.

Generally, health officials agree masks slow the spread of coronavirus by preventing respiratory particulates from entering the air from people’s nose and mouths.

Many jurisdictions around the state are moving rapidly to institute mask requirements, with at least 38 – nine of which are counties – requiring some form of the face covering.

But enforcing the requirement may come piecemeal; part individual responsibility and part government action because the requirement is tied to the county’s emergency order.

County Attorney Chasity O’Steen said enforcement has been an issue in Monroe County, which like Leon County makes not wearing face masks a non-criminal offense.

Commissioner Kristin Dozier said the intent of the motion was to try and get ahead of any possible outbreak.

“We can’t wait until we’re out of ICU beds to start wearing face masks,” she said. “I would like to see us do the emergency declaration and then go to a civil penalty.”

Local restaurants have seen an increase in cases among their staff, prompting temporary closures and tough words from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears on Tuesday.

They noted difficulties state officials have had since Florida began its phased reopening plan with Beshears’ office beginning a more aggressive campaign to suspend licenses for businesses and “more flagrant rule breakers.”

Public comment on the agenda item was immense, with nearly 1,200 comments included in county documents.

The majority of them support a mask requirement saying the inconvenience of wearing one outweighs the risk of further spreading the virus.

“I feel embarrassed to be part of a population that feels this is appropriate (to not wear masks),” wrote Denis Burns in public comment. “The message exuded by every member of our community that doesn’t wear a mask is simple: My pride and comfort is more important than your safety and wellbeing.”

But those that don’t cite troubles with enforcement and civil liberties.

“Let people make decisions that are best for them,” wrote Diane Breinholt. “If they feel better wearing a mask then they can wear one. If they feel they can navigate in public without one and stay safe with hand washing and social distancing they should be allowed to.”

Others flat out refused to follow any requirement.

Local government critic Erwin Jackson said he would not wear a mask because it interferes with a healthy immune system, limits proper exhalation of carbon dioxide and cited the varied position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the efficacy of masks.

“I did not ask for your medical advice, I do not want your medical opinion and I will NOT FOLLOW your proposed ordinance!” he wrote. “For those fearing to live their life, they can lock themselves away and wait for government to tell them when they can begin enjoying their life.”

The county hands out masks for free at government buildings, but some worry that requiring masks could put low-income citizens in a place where they face retribution for not wearing one.

“It is a gross overstep on our rights and will only hurt those that can’t afford facemasks and other (personal protective equipment.) It is my firm opinion that wearing a mask is a personal responsibility and not one that should be forced on people by the government,” wrote Avery Ayrish in his comment. “This is a reaction of fear not bravery.”

The evidence is undeniable, said Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley, and people often follow the rules laid out by government.

“I think we need to kind of let this ride for a while and if we find out that it’s just being ignored universally then maybe we step to the next phase,” she said. “We’ve stated what we expect the public to do for the greater good of the health of this community.”

Contact Karl Etters at or @KarlEtters on Twitter. 

Distribution of Free Cloth Face Coverings at County Libraries

Starting Wednesday, June 24, Leon County will make thousands of free face coverings available for pickup at all County library locations during regular hours, listed below. Individuals may request one covering and may also pick up one covering for each immediate family member.

  • Main Library (200 West Park Avenue)
  • Dr. B.L. Perry, JR. Branch Library (2817 South Adams Street)
  • Eastside Branch Library (1583 Pedrick Road)
  • Jane G. Sauls Fort Braden Branch Library (16327 Blountstown Highway)
  • Lake Jackson Branch Library (3840 North Monroe Street)
  • Northeast Branch Library (5513 Thomasville Road)
  • Woodville Branch Library (8000 Old Woodville Road)