The Nassau County Board of Commissioners also convened a meeting on Thursday to follow up the discussion held on July 1 to consider passage of an ordinance regarding the wearing of face coverings. It was passed unanimously. The agenda item listed was to: “Approve and authorize the Chairman to sign Executive Order No. 16, regarding the mandatory wearing of face coverings.” The background on the agenda stated: "As Nassau County has seen an increase in COVID-19 positive cases, and in particular a spike in positive cases over the past several weeks since Memorial Day and the Florida Surgeon General has issued guidelines as to masks and social distancing, Nassau County finds that it is necessary to take additional steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in response to the recent spikes in positive COVID-19 cases and hospital admittances. Nassau County believes that requiring individuals serving the public to wear cloth face coverings will significantly help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lessen the positive cases in Nassau County."
This meeting followed a meeting by the Fernandina Beach City Commission on Thursday afternoon where an emergency order was passed making the wearing of masks mandatory in specific circumstances.
After Jacksonville issued a mandatory mask order Monday for indoor and public spaces where social distancing is not possible, the Nassau County Board of Commissioners met Wednesday to have their own discussion about mandating facemasks in an effort to stop the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases here, and when the Fernandina Beach City Commission met Thursday, they voted unanimously for an emergency order making wearing masks mandatory in specific circumstances.
Fernandina Beach resolution 2020-94 says “every person over the age of six (6) who is in a public indoor space shall wear a face mask or covering when not able to engage in social distancing.”
The city commissioners said it would take the burden of requiring masks off of business owners. Signage is to go up in the city as soon as possible, and the city will work with the Tourist Development Council to get notices up in the city’s vacation rentals. Violations will be a second-degree misdemeanor that could be punished with a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. The new mandate is to be enforced by the Police Department.
The Fernandina Beach order can be viewed here: https://www.fbnewsleader.com/fernandina-beach-order-mandatory-masks-07-2-20.
On Wednesday, BOCC Chairman Danny Leeper asked the director of the Nassau County health department, Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, for an update on the health situation here. Ngo-Seidel confirmed a significant increase in cases of COVID-19.
“We are reporting 14 new cases today, bringing our total resident count to 188. Of those 188, 100 cases were reported in the past two weeks,” Ngo-Seidel said. “We currently have two patients with COVID at Baptist Nassau. ... The demographic has been younger, in the 20s and 30s. We are continuing to do testing twice a week at Public County Health supported test sites.” She said there has been more testing and have been more positive cases, and that is the basis for the positivity rate that informs decisions moving forward. These are viral test results. There are no reports of antigen and antibody tests at this time, according to Ngo-Seidel.
In response to a question from a resident, she discussed the many differences between the current state of the flu virus and the COVID virus known as SARS-CoV-2. Ngo-Seidel offered examples such as testing for flu in a rapid and easily accessible way, which is not available for COVID-19, she said. For flu, you can get a prescription and quickly treat it, while treatment for COVID-19 is reserved for the most serious cases in hospitals. She said there is some herd immunity for those who have had flu in the past or have been vaccinated in the past, but there is no herd immunity at this time against the novel coronavirus. Ngo-Seidel gave numerous other examples and summarized by saying there were, as of that meeting, 98 individuals currently under isolation orders from the health department, there are many more in quarantine, and that the Department of Health is continuing with their contact tracing.
County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin read a number of comments sent in by Nassau County residents regarding mask wearing, making masks mandatory, community spread of the virus, social distancing, closing the beaches, rolling back restaurant occupancy rates, not making masks mandatory, and one comment on beach driving at the Scott Road Beach Access. Mullin then initiated a discussion of on-beach driving to park at the Scott Road Beach Access. He reviewed why it was closed for vehicular access and the limited parking spaces.
“Currently we are trying to come up with a plan where you could open Scott Road. One plan is to go to Peters Point where they would issue you something to affix to your window and then you could park there,” Mullin said. There could be signage indicating that drivers would need to have that identification, and not having it could result in a summons or towing of the vehicle. He said he would be more in favor of possibly having staff there, which would cost money but would add enforcement. Mullin said he hopes to have something for the commissioners by next week. Commissioner Aaron Bell reiterated the need to resolve the matter.
Emergency Management Director Greg Foster said his team is continuing to put out their messaging regarding facemasks and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are ordering additional testing kits and have received 250,000 masks that they are distributing in the community. The masks are free.
Leeper said more and more people are wearing masks and he believes it comes down to personal responsibility. He wondered if it were to be mandatory, how they would mandate which masks are to be worn.
Commissioner Justin Taylor had concerns about enforcement. Taylor sees that as a large problem. Commissioner Tom Ford agreed with Taylor, adding he sees people wearing masks at this time and sees no need to make wearing masks mandatory.
Bell stated he would not like to see sheriff’s deputies going out to enforce the mandatory wearing of face coverings.
Commissioner Pat Edwards stated he would like to see the board come up with a decision so businesses could comply with a direction from the county instead of having the individual responsibility they are now exercising.
Mullin then reviewed the actions of other counties in regard to the use of face coverings. He stated they were going to take a break in the meeting to have a conference call “to discuss from the Emergency Operations point of view the use of face coverings.” On the conference call were Leeper, Mullin, Assistant County Manager Taco Pope, Martin, Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Len Kreger, Foster, Ngo-Seidel, Fernandina Beach Fire Chief Ty Silcox, Chamber of Commerce president Regina Duncan, and county administrative assistant Sabrina Robertson.
Reconvening after the call, Leeper stated that it had been a good discussion and that everyone wanted to be on the same page and wanted to have “one messaging” to the public so that there would not be competing ordinances.
Mullin stated that one of the ordinances they reviewed on the conference call was from Martin County. There was a discussion about instituting direction on a limited or a longer-term approach. Mullin suggested that if the commissioners agreed on the Martin County approach then he would be willing to put together a draft. He would then call a special meeting to discuss and vote on the draft resolution.
Leeper continued the discussion by saying those on the conference call kept coming back to enforcement. He spoke of doing the right thing for the public and how businesses would treat people wanting to come into their business.
Taylor suggested issuing strong encouragement but no mandatory action at this time. He suggested watching the numbers to see if they are spiking or declining before going into a mandatory resolution. Bell suggested coordination with Callahan and Hillard, which Mullin agreed to do. Ford stated that he feels everyone is doing a good job voluntarily and is concerned about the supply of masks to businesses. Leeper called on Foster to respond, and he stated that they have 80-90,000 cloth masks on hand, with a delivery on its way of approximately 50,000 masks, and there are multiple sources of masks now. Edwards stated he likes the Martin County resolution and it should be for 30 days.
Mullin summed up by saying he would come up with the draft procedure, get it out to the commissioners, and send one to Martin.
In other discussions, Edwards suggested that the county needs to fund the cleaning of the bathrooms at the ballpark in Yulee, and it needs to be reviewed as part of the budget process. Mullin stated he would talk to Doug Podiak, the county’s facilities maintenance director, to see what they can do about the issue.
Leeper closed the meeting by thanking the public for their input. He asked everyone to wear face coverings in public when you cannot socially distance and to follow the directions of and precautions of our health officials and the CDC.
In a discussion after the meeting, Leeper said the conference call was set up the day before to discuss the differences of making the face covering mandatory or whether it should be strongly encouraged.
“The conversation centered on the enforcement procedure and how do we enforce it. Other cities – Jacksonville, St Augustine, St. Johns, Martin County – have wrestled with this as well and we all shared in the desire to move in the same direction. We left with the goal of having a unified message coming from one source, Director Foster. The plan was to have Mike Mullin and Dale Martin mirror the image of what Martin County came up with in their proclamation. The conclusion was to come up with a 30-day period where we would strongly encourage mask wearing and monitor the numbers and at that time possibly move to mandatory.”
Kreger stated later, “The issue is mandatory masks and I am pretty confident that the City Commission has the goal to require mandatory mask wearing. From my point of view almost all of the citizens are pushing for mandatory masks.”
In the meeting, Kreger explained: “The Martin County resolution … requires stores and employees to wear masks but does not require patrons to have them on. What I have said is, we should have mandatory masks for all establishments that are in Phase 1, Phase 2 and anything that was an essential business before.”
Kreger also feels mandatory mask wearing should be considered for Amelia Island only, because in his estimation the island is different than the rest of the county. Kreger thinks a mandatory order would help to bring social pressure on those who were being non-compliant.
The Martin County Emergency Order 20-11 (Face Coverings) for reference is at https://bit.ly/38mOK9A. Florida COVID-19 policies and orders can be found at https://bit.ly/3gkdvGj.
Reporter Julia Roberts contributed to this story.