Pasco Commission sticking with mandatory mask order

Pasco County commissioners discussed last week's executive order requiring masks to be worn inside businesses and government buildings during a special meeting Monday morning.

UPDATE: Pasco County issued a press release at 3:12 p.m., July 2, amending its executive order requiring face masks in public. The amendment added an exemption for children attending formal day care or childcare programs. 

"Those facilities must have a health and safety plan in place consistent with the county’s executive order requiring everyone in Pasco County to use face coverings while indoors at a public business or county government facility."

The executive order issued last week requiring Pasco County residents to wear masks while visiting businesses and government buildings remains intact for the time being.

All county leaders, however, do not agree that it’s being implemented wisely. That became evident Monday morning when the Pasco County Commission held a virtual special meeting. Commissioners Mike Moore, Ron Oakley and Kathryn Starkey voiced support for the executive order requiring masks as-is, whereas Commissioners Jack Mariano and Mike Wells disagreed with the mandate’s language and its method of enforcing compliance.

Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles issued the executive order June 23. While it requires masks to be worn by people entering a business, the onus of making sure everyone complies with that policy rests with the business itself. Pasco County Code Enforcement is responsible for enforcing the order and businesses may face a $250 maximum fine if deemed necessary.

Biles addressed the order on Monday to try and clarify expectations, stating that the intent is for “voluntary compliance.”

“The reason we drafted it in this manner is because of a couple reasons,” Biles said. “One, we didn’t want to tell businesses ‘thou shall require everybody to where masks.’ The intent of the ordinance is that business owners know their operations best, so they can go through their operation and determine where they have conflict in respect to social distancing.”

The $250 fine is a last-case scenario, Biles stated. Educating business owners on the order’s requirements and working with them to comply as everyone adapts to pandemic-related changes is Code Enforcement’s priority.

“We have not written any citations to date as we speak,” said Todd Bayley, acting assistant administrator for public services, “but we have given a lot of educational warnings. We have about 20 code enforcement officers out there and we have been doing commercial building sweeps.”

While in support of the executive order, Starkey began Monday’s conversation by questioning how it can ultimately punish businesses instead of noncompliant guests.

“I do support masking at this time, but the one thing I would like to see changed is the responsibility,” Starkey said. “I believe it should not be the responsibility of the employer but the responsibility of the person coming to the business because I think it’s very difficult for the employer to be the policeman at the door.”

Doing so would require law enforcement involvement, Biles explained, not Code Enforcement officers. Discussions with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office determined that was not a viable option.

“If somebody barges through and is belligerent and doesn’t want to put on a mask, we’re not going to hold the business owner responsible for that,” Biles said.

Mariano was the most outspoken critic of the executive order, eventually motioning to alter its language “from mandatory to strongly recommended.”

“I wouldn’t mind seconding it but there are obviously three of you that are in favor of keeping it so I’m not going to second it,” Wells said. “But I do agree with Commissioner Mariano. It’s just tough on the business owners and trying to cite them.”

Mariano said he didn’t believe the order is enforceable. He also questioned the effectiveness of wearing different types of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but said that it should be the decision of the individual.

“I don’t think we should be making it mandatory,” he said. “I think if you take a look at what we could do, making it voluntary, I don’t see how code enforcement is going to go in an enforce these things to different business owners.

“I think we have a lot of responsible people and I think everybody’s paying attention to these numbers. I think if you give them a chance, you’re going to see a lot of people wearing the masks.”

The state of Florida and Pasco County has experienced an upward spike in COVID-19 cases, triggering last week’s executive order to wear masks. Mike Napier, a health officer with the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County, reported 1,909 total cases in Pasco County as of Monday morning. More than 50% of those cases, 1,053, came in the last week. While describing the “staggering numbers,” Napier warned that the upcoming Fourth of July weekend could result in an even greater spike in cases, similar to what occurred on Memorial Day weekend.

“I could have never guessed we’d have 1,000 positives in a week, but we could see 2,000 a week if we don’t do something to stop the spread,” Napier said.

The issuance of the mask mandate is an example of county leadership adapting to an unprecedented circumstance, Commission Chair Moore said. “Eight, nine days ago, I wouldn’t have been in support of a mask executive order in Pasco County, by any means. But things change, and they change quickly. When you go from two, three, four, five cases a day to having 304 in a day … things change. We’ve been very, very good here in Pasco County in my opinion of not overreacting to things.”

Moore added that although some business owners may feel the executive order adds an additional burden, it’s been issued with their best interests in mind.

“Besides protecting the health of the community, I think we need to protect the health of our small businesses out there,” Moore said. “If we go backwards and they go to Phase I or a total shutdown again, it’s going to be bad. Really, really, really bad. We don’t need these small businesses having to close again.”