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City commission ’strongly encourages’ wearing of masks

David Adlerstein
The Star

At a Tuesday afternoon special meeting, with a busy Independence Day holiday weekend approaching, Port St. Joe city commissioners urged the wearing of masks, but stopped short of mandating them.

The commissioners unanimously approved a motion by Commissioner Scott Hoffman, and seconded by Eric Langston, that they “strongly encouraged” the donning of facial coverings, and adherence to social distancing whenever that is not possible, in keeping with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

“I think we need to wade into this as softly as possible,” said Hoffman. “Can we get people to support the wearing of masks? If it doesn’t work, we need to move in another direction.”

Langston underscored the concerns of the commissioners, that people take responsibility for ensuring they do not contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, which as of Monday, had led to 22 confirmed cases in the county dating back to March, as well as a rush of testing that now has neared the 1,500 mark.

But like his colleague Brett Lowry, Langston was not in favor of an emergency declaration that might mandate the wearing of masks inside of city businesses.

“Wearing a mask is important, I do believe that,” said Langston. “We got another meeting coming on. Right now I need to see more knowledge. Sometimes you have to do what’s right, and right now is not the time to mandate masks.”

Mayor Rex Buzzett called the special meeting Monday, after explaining that he had said indications that there was a lack of clear direction among city residents as more businesses begin to exercise their option to require masks indoors.

“That’s why I called this meeting, to make folks a little more aware of these concerns,” he said, noting that he had asked the city attorney to research what rights the city had to issue an emergency declaration, and what terms it might contain.

He said he had been on a recent trip to Tennessee, where he had seen an overwhelming majority of employees wearing masks.

“They seem to take it a a little more seriously than we have,” he said. “We need to be a little more socially responsible. Personally, I went to all the restaurants in town and asked employees to wear masks.”

David Ashbrook said the views of his constituents had been running about 50-50 in support of taking measures to require masks.

“We need to encourage these business owners,” he said. “We could encourage the owner to mandate that, but I would rather not mandate citizens to do something. This is a business decision for them.”

Ashbrook made clear he was not in favor of bringing to bear the force of law on the issue.

“We don’t have the infrastructure set up, and I’m totally against having an ordinance we cannot enforce,” he said. “This needs to be led by citizens. We need to strongly encourage it. I don’t know that an emergency declaration or ordinance is going to do it.

“I don’t want to criminalize something if we don’t have to,” Ashbrook said.

“The number 22 is scary,” he said, referring to the number, as of Monday, of confirmed cases in Gulf County, dating back to March. “I would like to have the number trimmed down.”

Ashbrook said he wanted to see a deeper analysis of the numbers, regarding how many that tested positive displayed symptoms and for how long, how many recovered and how many have relocated outside of the city and county.

“I don’t want to base the decision on the big scary number,” he said. “I’d like to have that information.”

The mayor suggested the city could put in place portable signs, with a statement such as “Keep our city safe, wear a mask” to encourage the use of facial coverings.

“We can set a good example ourselves,” he said. “I think it’s important that we do that.”

Jared Lucas, an employee of Ace Hardware, said “I personally have had to throw people out of the store” related to conflicts over mask wearing, but said he believed “we’re not near the point” of a mandate.

“If we do nothing it sends a message that we don’t care one way or another,” said Hoffman. “We all agree we need to do more and I support a proclamation. That’s a big step in the right direction. I would support encouraging business owners to set up some mask-wearing protocol.”

Buzzett noted that all city employees who came in contact with a positive case have been tested. Results are pending, since it can take as long as seven to 10 days for the findings to come back from the lab.

“Stay safe and wear your masks,” he said. “Otherwise we have to mandate it eventually.”