CLEARWATER — Pinellas County’s local state of emergency and an ordinance requiring face coverings in indoor places will remain in effect until Friday, Oct. 2.

Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to extend the measures another seven days during a Sept. 22 meeting. In a separate vote, they approved delegating future decisions on extending the state of emergency to the county administrator.

Commissioners have spent the past several weeks listening to hours of public comment with many complaining that requiring face masks in indoor places is a violation of their personal freedom and some insisting that the commission provide specific criteria that would be necessary to lift that requirement.

Others have spoken in support of the commission’s decisions they say have been done to protect the public health and keep the community safe.

When some members of the public continued to pressure the commission to reveal what it would take to end the face mask requirement, commissioners agreed to consider setting a public hearing on the matter. But first, they wanted to hear from the county’s hospital executives.

Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer of HCA West Florida, Dr. Michael Longley, chief medical officer of AdventHealth North Pinellas, Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer of BayCare, and Dr. Nichelle Threadgill, chief medical officer of Community Health Centers of Pinellas, were invited to speak at the Sept. 22 meeting.

They all agreed that face masks and social distancing were necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Feinman said the county’s ordinance requiring facial coverings “had saved many lives.” However, he pointed out that the number of new cases in Pinellas continued to increase and the percentage of new cases was higher than the state as a whole.

He said flu season had to be considered in any future decisions as officials caution about the potential for a “twindemic.”

“I understand people are tired of the mask ordinance,” he said, and suggested that he and the other doctors at the meeting help come up with criteria that might signal it was time to rescind it.

Anand agreed that lives had been saved due to the mask ordinance. He said when making decisions, it was important not to consider “just what’s here and now,” but to also think back to March and the progression of cases up to the outbreak in June. He suggested thinking about COVID in six-week blocks.

He said doctors had learned a lot and hospitals were in better shape. He attributed the improvements to two major prevention measures — masks and social distancing.

He also is worried about the upcoming flu season. He said masks and social distancing are better alternatives to a lock down. Masks are very effective, he said. They decrease transmission, cases and deaths.

Longley said the science around using masks to impede transmission provides evidence that they reduce the transmission of infected droplets. He said COVID-19 is a challenge and something that more is being learned about over time.

He said it is now known that the primary means of transmission is human-to-human and that can occur several days before symptoms occur. He said people are more infectious at that time.

“Masks save lives,” he said. “They are one of the most selfless acts someone can take right now to protect themselves and others.”

He added that hand washing and social distancing also are important.

He recommended that people continue to wear a mask to “avoid a real debacle with flu season right around the corner.” He said flu season was always a challenge in Pinellas due to so many people coming here from other parts of the country.

Threadgill agreed with the others.

“Masks are truly our primary tool to use in our defenses against COVID-19,” she said.

She said social distancing can be difficult and it isn’t possible to stay home all the time. Masks are the key to opening the community, she said. Local schools are offering parents a choice beginning in October to allow students who are now attending virtual classes to transition into in-person learning. Threadgill said that could have an effect on the number of new cases.

She said masks help people protect themselves and stay healthy. They decrease transmission of the virus and masks may decrease the severity of the illness due to a decrease in the “viral load.”

“Masks are really important and key to maintaining our level of safety in the community,” she said.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters asked the doctors about a third method of prevention, which she has touted at past meetings. Peters believes that COVID-19 can be prevented by taking vitamins, such as C and D, to strengthen the immune system.

None of the doctors agreed with her assessment. Feinman said it could be harmful to “super charge” the immune system. Anand said there was no evidence that COVID-19 was less infectious in people taking supplements to boost their immune system.

Anand said evidence did show that wearing a mask was beneficial as well as social distancing.

After the doctors spoke, 23 members of the public gave their opinions with 65% speaking against the mask ordinance. Most want commissioners to allow the state of emergency expire, since that action would allow the mask ordinance also to expire.

Commissioner Dave Eggers suggested allowing the state of emergency to expire and then passing a new one as an alternative to holding a public hearing on the face mask ordinance a couple of weeks ago. The ordinance is tied to the state of emergency. To rescind the ordinance while the state of emergency is in effect, a public hearing is required, which could take up to two weeks to properly advertise.

He apologized to County Attorney Jewel White for suggesting that eliminating the local state of emergency was a way to get around having to advertise a public hearing. He said doing that would not give notice to all residents about the possible action, and his suggestion had created an expectation that the state of emergency could be used to rescind the face mask ordinance.

Authority delegated to county administrator

The majority of commissioners are concerned about the hostility of some of the speakers against the face masks requirement and recent accusations that doctors and others are somehow profiting from their actions. Some are concerned about the amount of time, two or more hours, the public comment period is adding to the meetings.

Because state law requires that the state of emergency be extended every seven days to remain in effect, commissioners have to meet weekly. Work sessions, which normally do not have public comment, have included a comment period for the state of emergency.

However, that will change as the commission agreed 4-3 to delegate authority to extend the state of emergency to County Administrator Barry Burton. Commissioners Peters, Eggers and Charlie Justice voted no.

The public will still be able to speak about the state of emergency and mask ordinance during the public comment period that is part of regular meetings, but not at work sessions, such as the one scheduled on Oct. 1. The next regular meeting is on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 9:30 a.m. The meetings will continue to be held virtually until further notice.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Chief medical officers from four local hospitals attended the Sept. 22 Pinellas County Commission meeting. They all agreed that face masks and social distancing are important in preventing the spread of COVID-19.