Uptick in COVID cases keeps Pasco mask mandate in place

Mike Napier, Administrator/Health Officer with the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County, updated the Pasco County Board of Commissioners on the current increase in COVID-19 cases.

UPDATE: Pasco County issued a press release Tuesday reaffirming its position on face coverings since Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday the state would enter into Phase 3 of its recovery plan.

"Face coverings are still required in most indoor public places in Pasco County, where social distancing cannot be maintained," the press release states, adding that the governor's order does not restrict counties from enforcing local orders on businesses.

NEW PORT RICHEY — With positive cases of COVID-19 trending in the wrong direction recently, Pasco County leaders decided against loosening the executive order mandating face coverings indoors and social distancing recommendations.

“We were doing pretty well back in the early part of September, averaging about 3% as a rolling average on our positivity,” said Mike Napier, administrator/health officer with the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County. “This last week, it’s the first time in almost a month we got a 6% positivity rate and we had 1,300 cases.”

Napier, who was providing a COVID-19 update to the County Commission on Sept. 21, said the county reported almost 50 positive cases per day over the past two weeks, up from about 29 per day in previous weeks.

Labor Day weekend at the beginning of September was cited as a potential explanation for the current spikes in positive cases, Napier said. It’s still too early, however, to determine if the start of school on Aug. 24 and the re-opening of bars on Sept. 14 have contributed to the last uptick.

According to the Pasco County Schools website, 84 students and 35 employees have tested positive as of Sept. 22. Another 1,889 students and 193 employees have been impacted, meaning they were in close contact for an extended period with a positive case.

“We’re not seeing a spike in those numbers (among school-age children) to lead us to believe that it’s in our school population,” Napier said.

As for the entire county, positive cases were at 8,834 and total deaths were at 205 as of Sept. 20 and “heading in the wrong direction,” Napier said. The case total represents an increase of 61.1% in the last seven days.

“From a public health standpoint, I have to tell you when we have a vaccine or when we have medication to treat COVID” is when the executive order and mask mandate can be lifted,” Napier said. “From a practical standpoint, we need to be able to get some numbers down to a point.”

Commissioners Jack Mariano and Mike Wells voiced their skepticism of continuing Pasco’s mask mandate that has been in place since June 23, but said they support the advice of the medical community.

“I’ve got my personal opinion on things, but I wear a mask when I have to,” Wells said. “And, quite frankly, if it’s going to save somebody else, then it could possibly save lives.

“I support it until you tell us otherwise, because you’re it, you’re the expert we look to and I respect you and your team and what you come up with.”

“I think you’re going to find at least 50%, maybe 60% of the people, are going to wear masks no matter what we do at this point in time all the way through,” Mariano said. “I don’t think we should be pushing the other 40% to make them do it if they don’t want to do it.”

County Administrator Dan Biles said the next Board of Commissioners update is expected to be Oct. 20.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in another 30 days. Maybe that’s an opportunity we can make some changes,” he said.

“I would hate to see us open it up too early and then it go out of sight,” Commissioner Ron Oakley said, speaking of relaxing the executive order and experiencing further potential spikes.