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Pinellas County weighs face mask requirement

Pinellas County

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA)—Pinellas County commissioners are considering a countywide order that would require people to wear face masks in public spaces.

The Board of County Commissioners met online Thursday morning to discuss extending the local state of emergency and a new face mask requirement. They agreed to table the mask discussion and will meet at the end of the month to vote on extending the order.

County Administrator Barry Burton is drafting the mask requirement order, which will be presented at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The talks come one day after St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that all businesses in the city must make face masks mandatory for workers who face the public.

“I think that’s common sense. I wholeheartedly agree with that, especially in that service industry,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the commission meeting Thursday. “I think Mayor Kriseman got it right on that because of the repeat stuff.”

Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Department of Health in Pinellas County told commissioners more masks would be effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We don’t really have a lot of tools in the tool kit, other than that social distancing and the mask.” said Choe. “People forget we’re not past COVID, it’s going to be here for a while.”

“I am just begging you to think very carefully about mandating masks for indoors in public places,” said Dr. Larry Feinman, Chief Medical Officer of HCA West Florida Division. “I oversee the care of 15 COVID units in our division, four of which are in your county. I am more comfortable walking into our COVID units than I am walking into the Publix down the street. I am terrified when I walk in there because the only people that have a mask on are me and the cashier.”

Sheriff Gualtieri said it would be tough to enforce a mask requirement and suggested restaurants limit their customers to no more than 50 at a time, and space out their tables so that they’re six feet apart.

“If you just say 50 people, than you can count heads and it’s easier,” Gualtieri said.

Currently, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity and bars at 50% capacity.

“I’m not putting anyone in jail for not wearing a mask. That ain’t happening,” Gualtieri added.

“The businesses should own this. The businesses are the ones that should be responsible. They can fix this, and if they would step up and do it, a lot of this would take care of itself. So if you gave us the option of a civil violation under a civil ordinance, as to the businesses, I’m more apt to do that as opposed to the individuals. Because the individuals can’t do this if the businesses don’t allow it. Those people are coming because they’re allowed to be there,” Gualtieri added.

Thursday’s meeting came amid concerns over the rise of coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay. As of Thursday morning, Pinellas County had recorded 2,684 cases of the virus and 110 deaths. Five hundred people had been hospitalized.

“The best guidance we have right now is that a mask, in and of itself, will not protect you, no matter what kind of mask that is. A N95 Respirator or a P100 respirator should protect you quite well, but a surgical mask, a procedure mask, a cloth mask, depending on the type, how its worn, how long it’s worn for, how well-fitting it is, and whether there is contamination with other chemicals, particularly oils, will all affect how well they work,” said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director at Pinellas County EMS.

“While masking is one strategy that is extremely important when other strategies cannot be implemented, it is not the only strategy. The primary method of preventing a respiratory transmitted virus is by not breathing air with viruses in it and the primary method of doing that is not being near people who are breathing out viruses in our air,” Jameson continued.

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