County reverses mandate on mask wearing

Subhead

Face coverings will still be required in
county public buildings, per new ordinance.

Image
  • The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners listens to Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the county health department, at their meeting on Sept. 23.  Nassau County/Gary D. Morgan for the News-Leader
    The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners listens to Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the county health department, at their meeting on Sept. 23. Nassau County/Gary D. Morgan for the News-Leader
Body

The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners has reversed its mandate on wearing masks inside county businesses when social distancing is not possible, and is instead “encouraging” the practice via a new executive order dated Thursday. Wearing a mask will continue to be required to enter and remain inside “Nassau County public buildings.” Those who do not “shall be asked to leave the building,” per the order signed by County Attorney Mike Mullin and BOCC Chairman Danny Leeper.

A meeting was held Wednesday evening where the controversial matter was discussed.

An email sent afterward from Public Information Officer Sabrina Robertson confirmed the 3-2 vote to “end the mandatory mask mandate, effective at noon tomorrow.”

Robertson added that Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, the director of the county health department, spoke at the meeting, “crediting several mitigation efforts to the recent low case counts including use of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing.

“Though the mandate has been lifted, residents are still strongly encouraged to wear masks when unable to socially distance. Further, businesses can still implement their own mask mandates should they choose. Please note that masks will still be required in all County facilities. ... The Board will continue to meet weekly and hear updates from (Ngo-Seidel). Should cases begin to spike again, the Board could consider reinstating the mandate in the future.”

At the meeting, Leeper requested a report from Ngo-Seidel on the county’s coronavirus pandemic statistics.

“As of today, there were 2,053 total cases of which 1,912 were Nassau County residents and 141 were non-Florida residents. As of yesterday evening, the number released from public health isolation was 1,633 and that means that currently there are 279 active cases in our community plus their quarantine contact. The percent positivity in the last 14 days is 5.22%. Since the last time I gave this report, there have been three additional hospitalizations and 10 additional deaths,” Ngo-Seidel said.

“Currently in Baptist Nassau there are three hospitalized patients with COVID, two are in the ICU and one on the floor. We are not aware of any in Jacksonville,” she continued.

“Our key messaging for today is to continue the mitigation measures although we’re improving. It’s important that we consider those mitigation measures working together like the legs on a table or a stool. So again, they all work together whether it’s wearing a mask or physically distancing or practicing hygiene or limiting contact. So it’s important for us to continue to sustain those measures to keep our community healthy.”

She said that on Monday, Sept. 28, free coronavirus testing would be available at the county health department’s Callahan clinic from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. The clinic is located at 45377 Mickler Street. Call (904) 875-6100 for more information.

Ngo-Seidel also encouraged everyone to get a flu vaccination. 

Nassau County Emergency Management Director Greg Foster also gave a report. “Nassau County Emergency Management continues to support the mission to fight the pandemic. We continue to supply assisted living centers and nursing facilities with PPE along with the first responders, be it law enforcement or fire rescue. We continue to push out the messaging in support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health, when coming to mitigation measures and helping the people do the right thing to continue to fight the disease.”

The next item on the agenda was to approve extending the state of emergency in Nassau County due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The resolution was unanimously approved, as it has been every week since its introduction on March 18.

The discussion about extending the county’s current executive order regarding face coverings followed. That order was set to expire Sept. 25.

Leeper introduced the item by stating that it be considered while “Dr. Seidel and Director Foster are here,” adding that the commissioners had all received information from County Manager Taco Pope, Mullin, Ngo-Seidel, and Foster.

Commissioner Justin Taylor then thanked Ngo-Seidel and Foster for the information and for “doing a tremendous job and of course with informing the public and the citizens.”

But Taylor then questioned when the mask mandate might end, adding that he does not like the idea of government making a mandate and enforcing it.

“I understand it’s our job to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens which we serve, and there’s been so many good arguments on both sides,” Taylor said. “I do know there’s a lot of businesses currently, some of the big stores, they have corporate policies, throughout the nation that have these already in place. I know there are a lot of other businesses that have these in place.

“I think that we’re getting to a time now where we can lift the mandate that we have. ... I’ll do this in the form of a motion that we lift the masks mandate and still heavily encourage it. Encourage the citizens to wear it. You know, if they feel they need to, but lift the mandate, and then every week when we come back and we come in here for these meetings, we can, you know, if we see a drastic spike, we can make that decision then to, if we need to, go back to it.”

Taylor also said that Pope, under his authority during the state of emergency, could, “at any time, put it back in place if he so deems necessary, but I just don’t want to see us in a position where six months down the road, the board is trying to make that decision because there isn’t a vaccine that’s being heavily distributed yet.”

Commissioner Thomas Ford seconded Taylor’s motion and then asked Ngo-Seidel about a number related to an “end goal” to be able to lift the mask mandate “for good.”

Ngo-Seidel responded that she has provided guidance and has been asked “multiple times for indicators for what could be considered metrics for community burden of disease.”

“There is not one magic metric I can share with you that says ‘this is it’ once you get to this point, whether it’s percent positivity – which I shared the data for our county and the other counties – or the number of cases that we have. ... Often times it is a combination of those things,” she said.

Ngo-Seidel stated the best guidance was developed for schools, “but has a lot of good information that you can use, and for the first time it does put people, put communities into different categories so there’s categories for higher risk of transmission - highest risk, higher, moderate risk, and lowest.

“I’m not suggesting by any means that we need to get to lowest, I don’t think that’s going to be realistic, and there is a balance to that, but there are some things in the data that I shared with you that show we’re still above where we should be in my opinion as a community. So I think it prudent to consider continuing them.

“As I said before, all these measures work together like the legs of a stool. We’re where we’re at because of your leadership and the community following that leadership whether it was mandated or just voluntary to get our community to this healthier place than we were in early July. So again, I would caution us about removing one of those legs so-to-speak, to make our support of our community’s health a little unstable.”

After saying that the county is doing “very well” at this point in its health care system and in public health, she encouraged the BOCC to look at metrics that show the county is currently in a category of “higher risk of transmission” and should make it a goal to move to “maybe even a moderate risk, to be thinking about that, and then take that into context on what else is going on in our community.” Ngo-Seidel then praised the school district, saying “Schools have done very well,” but added she was worried that the schools would see county officials “pulling back from the mask mandate and saying, we can pull back from the mask mandate and making that risk as well.

“It’s difficult and I know that you all want the answer, everyone wants the answer, the residents want the answer – ‘What is the impact of this particular action?’ – and it’s very hard to quantify. So I like to look at it again as those legs to a stool that work together.”

Ford then asked for Ngo-Seidel’s thoughts on the flu season. She recommended getting a flu vaccination and to wear masks, which protect others.

Ngo-Seidel then spoke to her own habits as the chief health officer in the county; about how she wears a mask to protect those she is around, how she stays away from other people, washes her hands, and does not go into crowds. Ngo-Seidel concluded: “We can make our community healthier to get a flu vaccine. Everyone is talking about the COVID vaccine. It’s the same principle. We want more people protected so we don’t spread it. It’s important to get a flu vaccine. Now is a good time. The state surgeon general says get your vaccine before Halloween.”

Regarding the development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Ngo-Seidel referred to “four in development that are in Phase III. There will be very different varieties and it will be limited in supply and targeted to the highest risk populations first. ... We’ll learn with the vaccine as well. But I’m confident the
process we have in our country to develop the vaccine and deploy it; we’ll assure it’s safe. We’ll have to see how effective it is and that’s why it’s a two-dose vaccine, but I think our country has enough safeguards to ensure it’s going to be safe, in my opinion.”

Mullin then discussed the different concerns that would have to be considered in changing the mask regulation, such as whether people who speak at public meetings would be required to wear masks and whether people entering government offices would have the same requirement.

Bo Hodges of Hilliard rose to speak about the need to stop the mask mandate as it was not being enforced. Hodges said he was glad that the numbers are improving but he does not believe that is because of the mask mandate.

Commissioner Pat Edwards then said he did not understand Ford’s motion to drop the mandate: “The people that we pay a salary to, to provide us with information from professionals that we rely on for most other events, we turn a deaf ear to. ... (Ngo-Seidel) said the need is to protect your face, distance yourself, wash your hands, several different things that improve your opportunity.”

Edwards then said he has a close friend in intensive care with COVID-19. “I can’t vote to take this off when I can pronounce a death sentence on another individual because we don’t think using a mask is needed,” Edwards continued. “We do this tomorrow and we fill the hospitals up with COVID. Is that whenever Taco says, ‘Oh, we don’t have a place for these people because we have the hospitals full and Jacksonville has a mask ordinance, so we’re going to use their hospital,’ because we don’t have the leadership here to do what we need to do. So from my standpoint, I’m voting no, regardless, on this. I just don’t see it as a positive step forward.”

Taylor then asserted that some stores that have mandates in place for employees and customers would not be affected, such as Publix, Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, etc. He said he doesn’t want people to walk into these places and think there is a mask mandate in place because of the county.

Commissioner Aaron Bell pointed to surrounding counties where wearing a mask is voluntary. “We have a law on the books that we’ve all sat in this room and said we’re not going to enforce. So it degrades the value of our laws if we’re not A – if we’re not going enforce it – and B, when you look at surrounding counties that have it – and I’m a data guy – and the surrounding counties that have it have the same outcome, and in some cases even a better outcome, than we have. It’s hard for me to continue a mandate telling people they have to do this when if you look at the data, it’s – it doesn’t seem to be needed.

“And then we’re also having a second-degree misdemeanor. Theoretically you can get 60 days in jail for not wearing a mask and we all say we’re not going to enforce it. I’m having a hard time with it.” 

Leeper added his thoughts before saying he would not support the motion.

“Like Commissioner Edwards, I’m not going to support the motion as made. I feel like we should continue it. As a former fire chief and health care professional, I have a duty and obligation and responsibility to protect the citizens of the community. I still feel and subscribe to the same feelings,” Leeper said, referring to Ngo-Seidel and Foster’s recommendations to continue wearing masks. “I’m going to continue to support the mandate, until something changes, and right now, I don’t have enough evidence based on Dr. Seidel’s presentation and information that we have received to go against her recommendation.”

Ford spoke again to say he agreed with Bell: “I feel like the people that are going to wear masks are already wearing them. The ones that don’t want to, they’re not because it’s not being enforced. I feel like at the corporate Walmart, Publix, they enforce it fairly well. I know every time I go in, they, you know, everybody’s wearing a mask and they’re doing the right thing for the most part. You know, I feel like we need to try something different.”

Taylor’s final motion was to encourage the wearing of facemasks as opposed to the mandate currently in place, and taking effect at noon yesterday. People entering county facilities must still wear a mask or cloth face covering, and retail establishments should still require social distancing.

Mullin clarified the emergency order will still encourage owners and managers to develop a health and safety plan for their businesses consistent with the order.

The final vote was Taylor, Ford, and Bell voting to change the executive order and Edwards and Leeper voting against it.

David Jahosky of Government Services Group Inc. presented an update on the CARES Act money the county received. Jahosky requested the BOCC modify the parameters of the Individual Rent and Mortgage Assistance Program to increase the maximum award to a household from $3,300 to $15,000 and to include costs of utilities when utilities are included as part of the lease/rent payment. There was unanimous approval of this motion.