County extends emergency and mask orders

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  • The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners discussed when the county might be able to relax the current mask requirements for businesses. GARY MORGAN/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER/BOCC
    The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners discussed when the county might be able to relax the current mask requirements for businesses. GARY MORGAN/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER/BOCC
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The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners held a special meeting Wednesday to extend the current state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic through Sept. 2, “due to on-going situations associated with COVID-19 in areas within the county.”

SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the novel coronavirus, can cause a debilitating or fatal disease called COVID-19.

Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the county health department, told the board that with school starting this week, anyone who is ill should stay home. Due to the ongoing community spread of the virus, she continues to recommend everyone wear a mask.

Ngo-Seidel also updated the commissioners on the official county statistics related to the pandemic. As of Tuesday, there were a total of 1,522 cases with 1,427 of those being residents, she said. Public health officials have released 1,073 residents from mandatory isolation. “There has been a total of 161 cases in the past week and 44% were related to congregate long-term care settings,” Ngo-Seidel added.

Addressing the number of tests that show infection with the virus as a percentage of all tests performed as of a certain date, she stated: “The Nassau County overall positivity rate was 10.8%. If you subtract the cases that are associated with the congregate living situation, our positivity rate is closer to the 6% positivity rate that it was the previous week.”

“Unfortunately, we continue to have hospitalizations,” Ngo-Seidel continued. “We had a total of nine hospitalizations last week and three additional deaths. Currently in Baptist Nassau, as of yesterday, 10 patients are hospitalized, two are in the ICU and eight are on the medical surgical floor. We know of four persons who are hospitalized in Jacksonville.”

Ngo-Seidel added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent has commented on the plastic face shields that many people are using: “These are considered eye protection and they are not considered face coverings. They do not really protect others because if you cough or sneeze, they are open on the sides,” she said. “If you are going to continue wearing them for eye protection, continue wearing cloth masks as well. Masks with valves are not recommended because when you do cough or sneeze, they allow the secretions to go out. They are not recommended and are not as good as face coverings.”

Ngo-Seidel said that masks are currently available from Florida Department of Health – Nassau or Nassau County Emergency Management. Call (904) 875-6100 or (904) 548-0900 for more information.

FDOH – Nassau continues to offer free virus tests for Nassau County residents. Free testing is scheduled for 9:30-11:00 a.m. Saturday at Yulee Middle School.

Greg Foster, director of Nassau County Emergency Management, said his department aired a special live presentation via Facebook entitled “Back to School During A Pandemic.” Foster said it went well and had almost 10,000 views. Emergency Management is currently setting up a special telephone line for people who have questions that were not addressed at the time.

Visit https://bit.ly/34DfvHd to view a recording of the presentation.

Foster has 100,000 masks on hand, ready for distribution. He mentioned increasing requests from assisted living centers and skilled nursing facilities for N95 masks and anticipates requests from law enforcement and fire rescue services. He is working on identifying vendors for that type of mask.

The BOCC next took up Executive Order No. 16, “regarding the mandatory wearing of face coverings,” which was to expire Wednesday. There was an extended discussion of the executive order prior to the vote.

County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin read the original executive order, which states, ”Every operator, employee, customer or patron, over the age of six (6), of a business establishment must wear a face mask or covering at all times while indoors at that business establishment unless he or she is able to engage in social distancing or unless wearing a face mask or covering significantly interferes with the provision or receipt of goods or services offered or received at that establishment (i.e. patrons at a restaurant, clients at a barber shop or hair salon, patients at a dentist’s office). The Order does provide exemptions for public safety and law enforcement personnel because their personal protective gear is governed by their agencies.”

Commissioner Justin Taylor stated he would like to see some sort of exit strategy in place. “Where do we see the positivity rate?” Taylor asked. “Where do we feel like we can get to a position where we can say we can now make the mask mandate optional?”

Commissioner Tom Ford asked Mullin if there was any “lightening” of the mask ordinance in neighboring counties. Mullin replied that Duval and Flagler still have their orders in place and that he had not checked lately with the other counties. Ford added, “The thing that we want to prevent the most is another spike. I feel like that will cripple our economy again if we have to shut down and that would not be a pretty picture for anything.”

Commissioner Aaron Bell clarified that the mask ordinance was for businesses, not for churches or schools. The school system can decide what they think is best for opening school.

“We need to start thinking of criteria of where do we need to be – maybe a percent positivity under 3% or some kind of criteria and maybe Dr. Seidel could help us draft it, but something where we know that when we get there, we’ll turn the mask mandate into an optional wearing of masks,” Bell said. “If we say, ‘We are saving one life, we are going to keep it,’ then we are going to have it forever and I don’t think that is appropriate, either. I would like to see that we work with Dr. Seidel and Director Foster to come up with some criteria that would make sense of when we turn it off and then we get there we say OK, then we are going to turn it off.”

“Folks are getting restless,” Ford added. “I think if they see some light at the end of the tunnel, it would be much better.”

Commissioner Pat Edwards said his greatest concern is for those individuals who are most affected.

“Normal, everyday, healthy people are probably not going to be affected, but to put a percentage without a vaccine all you do is you bounce back from a low percentage to a higher percentage. Once you take the mask off, you take off a layer of protection, and once a vaccine is available then you could say in 90 days or whatever days it takes for as many people as are requesting the vaccine get it then those that don’t want the vaccine don’t think it’s bible, just like the flu shot, there’s many millions of people that don’t take a flu shot.

“I think that an appropriate way of doing so is to look at when those people who are most in dire straits have an opportunity to use the vaccine. It may be two months; it may be six months,” Edwards continued. “If we take it off and we get close to say, 2%, and a month later it’s at 20%, what are we going to do? We’re going back, and then are we going to be so deep that school’s out again and we close down businesses again and they can’t make it this time?

“I just think we need to think about it from the standpoint of the 88,000 people. I think St. Johns (County) School Board voted yesterday that the kids who did not want to wear a mask at school could go to the virtual school and not worry about the mask, but I think we need to look at it from a standpoint of how we’re going to protect those people that we were elected to protect and those people without a vaccine they are open season.”

Chairman Danny Leeper said there were good points made by both sides. Leeper clarified for the record that the BOCC is not involved in setting any mask mandates for public or private schools.

At this point, there was a telephone call with comments from Bo Hodges of Hilliard, who expressed his views. He concluded his remarks by saying that “It’s time to end the mandate and the state of emergency.”

At the conclusion of the call there was a unanimous vote by the commissioners to extend the executive order on masks by an additional 30 days.

The BOCC also unanimously approved authorizing Leeper to sign Amendment 3 to Contract No. 2875, extending the term of the agreement with Government Services Group through Dec. 30 and to increase GSG’s compensation for Phase 1 and Phase 2 not to exceed $850,000. The source of the funds to pay GSG is the federal CARES Act grant.

Mullin clarified that when a county emergency order is declared, the county manager takes the lead, and the director of Emergency Management reports to the county manager. The BOCC can override the order of the county manager, but no emergency orders are issued without consulting Emergency Management and the Florida Department of Health – Nassau.

Mr. Mullin discussed the procedure by which an advisory board for a new Water and Sewer District of American Beach will be appointed by the BOCC. The board would be made up of five persons who are property owners within the American Beach boundary.

The BOCC scheduled another special meeting for Sept. 2.