NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council voted unanimously June 30 to follow in the footsteps of Pasco County and other area governments by mandating the wearing of face coverings when in public.
Tuesday’s special meeting was scheduled to discuss an unrelated branding and marketing issue, but recent spikes in positive COVID-19 cases led city leaders to add the emergency ordinance to the agenda. As an emergency ordinance, only one public reading is required for passage if a supermajority of council members, four out of five, vote in favor.
After about 10 minutes of discussion, the board voted 5-0 to pass the ordinance. And that was with three of five council members not wearing masks during the in-person meeting at City Hall.
“No one wants their civil liberties taken away,” said Councilman Jeff Starkey. “We live in the United States of America and it’s a free country. But we are experiencing a pandemic right now. You can see that Councilman (Peter) Altman does not have a mask on, nor does Councilman (Chopper) Davis, nor do I. We’re currently practicing social distancing.
“I want everyone in the public to understand that this doesn’t mean you have to wear a mask,” Starkey continued. “If you go into tight quarters indoors where you can’t be 6 feet apart from somebody, then yes, you’re required to wear a mask. If you go into Publix, you should not be required to wear a mask because you can social distance in public. You can social distance in City Hall. You can social distance in most places.”
Prior to council discussion, City Manager Debbie Manns introduced the executive ordinance and explained why the city wished to pass a regulation of its own.
“We are establishing mitigation strategies until the risk of widespread outbreak is minimized,” said Manns, adding that Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wouldn’t preempt local governments from regulating health requirements.
Manns added that the city’s ordinance in large part mirrors Pasco County’s executive order “but additionally empowers our staff for enforcement and mitigation if it’s appropriate to do so. Education is our first line of defense.”
Pasco County Code Enforcement is staffed with 20 people, and Manns said she expects the department may face difficulties adding face-covering requirements to their current responsibilities.
“I would very much like to have the opportunity to have our staff handle (situations) if it’s appropriate to do so within the boundaries of the city,” Manns said.
Mayor Rob Marlowe, co-owner of Gulfcoast Networking in downtown New Port Richey, voiced his support for wearing masks when in indoor public places while also agreeing with Starkey that social distancing without masks can be practiced effectively, as well. Marlowe mentioned the bulletin posted on the entrance of his business, which states that individuals at high risk to complications resulting from a COVID-19 infection work there. Face coverings are required to enter, but those unable to wear a mask for a condition specified in Section 10 in Pasco County’s emergency order may notify employees upon opening the door and social distancing will be observed.
“As much as I hate to see us go this route, for the good of our community I think it’s important,” Marlowe said.
“I’m concerned that we’re going to lose businesses in New Port Richey if this thing stretches out for too long and people don’t take it seriously,” the mayor added. “Had folks been a little more careful when things were first relaxed, we wouldn’t be in the boat we’re in right now with thousands and thousands of new cases every single day.”
New Port Richey’s emergency ordinance includes a list of exemptions to wearing face coverings:
• Children younger than 2
• Persons observing social distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines
• Persons whom a face covering would cause impairment due to an existing health condition
• Persons working in a business or profession who do not have interactions with others or can maintain social distancing from others
• Persons working in a business or profession where use of a face covering would prevent them from performing their duties
• Persons exercising, while maintaining social distancing
• Persons engaging in indoor sporting activities, so long as the facility has its own health and safety plan consistent with ordinance
• Persons eating or drinking
• Public safety, fire, and other life safety and health care personnel, as their personal protective equipment requirements will be governed by their respective agencies
• The requirement shall not apply when a person who is hearing-impaired needs to see the mouth of someone wearing a face covering in order to communicate
• The requirement shall not be applied in a manner that would conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act.