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City to ‘require’ face masks in public places

Tim Croft

They stopped just shy of a mandate, but Port St. Joe commissioners got serious about face masks during Tuesday’s regular bi-monthly meeting

Commissioners, expressing dismay at the public’s response to the pandemic to date, unanimously approved an emergency declaration “requiring” the wearing of face masks in public places where social distancing is not possible.

The declaration takes effect Monday.

Commissioners took the action after weeks of urging the public to take the pandemic seriously, including posting signs encouraging face masks in the downtown business sector.

But, after going two months with but a single COVID-19 case, the county has added over 180 in the past six weeks, more than 50 this past weekend alone.

“In a week’s time we have doubled the number of positive COVID cases,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett.

Further, the county’s infection rate among those tested was roughly 6 percent, Buzzett said.

Given the county’s population, that would equate to about 900 total positive cases, meaning, “based on the facts in front of us there are 700 people walking around positive for COVID,” Buzzett said.

Two downtown businesses, Buzzett added, had been forced to close due to infections among staff.

“It is not getting better,” Buzzett said. “And we are responsible for the health and safety of the people in this city.”

There was particular frustration expressed by several commissioners with the lack of response by local businesses, with restaurant wait staff and customers alike observed not wearing masks.

“We put our faith in the businesses and people that they would wear masks,” said Commissioner David Ashbrook.

Commissioner Scott Hoffman said he’d rather listen to medical experts rather than the “experts” on social media and noted that uniformly health officials have encouraged face masks in public.

Even the U.S. Surgeon General came out in the past week and encouraged the wearing of face masks in public.

Buzzett said rather than a mandate on face masks he preferred the term “required.”

In straightforward language, the emergency declaration requires the wearing of a protective face covering in any public place where social distancing is not possible.

In addition, masks are required while folks are at work and businesses are responsible for ensuring the wearing of masks by all staff while within the business.

Any person entering a building within the city must wear a face mask.

As was noted during the meeting, there is no specific enforcement mechanism to the requirement of face masks.

Buzzett said he did not wish to turn the police department into the “mask police.”

But, commissioners also made clear they would not hesitate the take more drastic measures if the emergency declaration fails to find some traction.

“I hope folks take it seriously and we don’t have to come back and pass an ordinance or mandate,” Buzzett said. “I hope we don’t have to.

“We’re leaving it up to the leaders of the community and the business leaders to help us.”

Tentative millage

Commissioners approved setting a tentative millage of 4.5914, one mill higher than has been levied for more than a dozen years.

A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in assessed taxable property.

The city is beginning the budget process and has in the past set the tentative millage rate a mill higher to provide flexibility during budgeting.

Once set and submitted the property appraiser in early August, the tentative millage may not be raised, but can be lowered.

Though the 4.5914 has annually appeared on Truth In Millage (TRIM) notices, the city has consistently ended budget season one mill lower.

Washington High Class of 1966

Commissioners provided approval, tentative pending ironing out logistics in some cases, for several proposals from the Washington High Class of 1966.

The class proposes to fix the existing flag pole at the Washington High gym and fly the national and state flags from the pole.

The group also proposes to landscape Avenue C from U.S. 98 to the Washington High site.

Finally, the group proposed to the city to replace all the letter designations for streets in Port St. Joe, all in the neighborhood of North Port St. Joe, with more traditional names.

Some logistics, particularly 9-1-1, would need to be overcome, but commissioners provided their approval for the concept.