Coronavirus response: Hillsborough County considers mandating face coverings in public

Coronavirus

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Members of Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group are weighing the idea of mandating the use of face coverings in public.

The idea came up during Monday’s group meeting that eventually ended with the implementation of a new county-wide curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

During that discussion, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor proposed a mandate that says people have to cover their faces when they’re in public.

“I think mandating the wearing of masks whenever in a public setting is something I think we need to talk about as the next step,” Castor said.

Two doctors from USF Health agreed. Dr. Thomas Unnasch pointed out that mandating masks has worked in other countries.

“There is one country (in Europe) that is past its peak and way on the down-slope, and that’s Austria,” he said. “And the one thing Austria did that was unique among the countries in Europe is they early on mandated wearing of masks when anyone was out in a public area or entering a public shop.”

Dr. Marissa Levine, also from USF Health, said there is evidence that wearing a mask is important practice.

“You’re really protecting other people, not so much yourself,” Dr. Levine said. “We don’t know what the burden of asymptomatic disease is in the community.”

During the discussion, Hillsborough County School Board Chair Melissa Snively asked how the mandate would work with the current shortage of masks we’ve seen recently.

“Where would citizens acquire those masks?” she asked, pointing out the earliest she can get a mask from Amazon is May.

Snively also asked it the mandate would take away from medical personnel who need the masks.

“People will have to use what they have,” Dr. Levine said. “We absolutely have to leave the (commercials) masks for the first responders and the health care professionals.”

Later in the call, another doctor stressed the importance of using language that makes it clear the mandate would be for face coverings – not masks specifically. The doctor’s fear was that citizens would mass purchase masks, further depleting the supply for workers on the frontlines.

The mask mandate discussion was eventually tabled while the group debated and voted on the curfew. Mayor Castor brought it up again after the curfew vote, making a motion to pass the mandate and put it in effect Thursday so people would have time to learn how to make their own masks at home.

During the second discussion, Mayor Castor clarified that law enforcement would use education and encouragement to enforce the mandate.

“It wouldn’t be something that individuals would be cited for, it would be more of an encouragement and education,” Castor said.

Several members voiced their support for some sort of mandate on covering faces in public but wanted more information. Snively asked for time to read more on the topic and get more information from the mayor on what exactly it would entail.

The mayor ultimately withdrew her motion and said she would distribute more information to group members. She also said she would be putting information out to the public to prepare them for the potential mandate.

The group is set to vote on the motion Thursday. Mayor Castor is pushing to have the order go into effect Thursday.

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