Leeper warns Nassau businesses to protect their customers

  • Four members of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners wear masks Wednesday for their special meeting. Commissioner Aaron Bell attended via videoconferencing. NASSAU COUNTY
    Four members of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners wear masks Wednesday for their special meeting. Commissioner Aaron Bell attended via videoconferencing. NASSAU COUNTY

The special meeting held Wednesday by the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners looked startlingly different than the one held last week. The four commissioners present, plus the county manager and attorney, were all wearing protective face masks and appeared to be sitting at least six feet apart. Commissioner Aaron Bell attended remotely via videoconferencing.

The masks, distancing, and plastic shields implemented recently are meant to stop the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which can cause a sometimes fatal and oftentimes seriously debilitating disease called COVID-19. It can be carried by people who are unaware they are infected and then unintentionally transmit it to others.

The number of cases in Nassau County has doubled since mid-May.

The county’s state of emergency related to the pandemic was extended another week.

“As you know, there’s been increasing numbers in the state of Florida as well as Nassau County,” County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin began the meeting, referring to officially counted cases of COVID-19 virus infections, adding he passed along the latest statistics to the board. Citing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Mullin said the public is concerned statewide and afraid about “walking into establishments, restaurants, et cetera, that are not practicing social distancing, and that the employees and patrons are not wearing masks.” He said he has received calls about it and believes the commissioners have as well.

Mullin warned that, in his opinion, the contact tracing performed by the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County should not to be used alone as a source of comfort. “Contact tracing is difficult at best and does not, often times, assist in determining exactly where the confirmed case came from. Because I get calls – ‘Do we know where it came from? A particular bar or restaurant or big box facility?’ – and Dr. Seidel can comment on that,” referring to FDOH – Nassau’s director, Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel.

Mullin said there are cities and counties in Florida considering mandatory orders regarding masks for business employees, and told the public that if they have concerns about
any establishment not following the public safety recommendations, they should contact the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which could suspend their alcohol license.

Emergency Management Director Greg Foster told the board he is working with the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce to push out information on businesses that are complying with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for protecting the safety of employees and customers, “so people can see people doing it right.”

“Under the Florida Governor’s Executive Order 20-139, all individuals are responsible for following CDC public health and safety recommendations and businesses that reopen are subject to enforcement under section 252.50, Florida Statutes, and by licensing agencies (e.g., Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Department of Health) should follow social distancing guidance (space people six feet apart), limit indoor patrons to 50% of max occupancy, and have employees wash hands frequently, clean and disinfect surfaces more often, and wear a mask to protect others in case they are infectious but are not symptomatic,” according to a post on the EM Facebook

Ngo-Seidel, who called in to the meeting, offered her assessment of the increase in cases here. She confirmed DeSantis’ statement Monday that the number of cases reported is not just going up because of
more testing. She said the percentage of positive test results has also gone up and there are now younger ages involved. “Some of these cases were due to social gatherings, versus in the past we found more related to work settings and family household spread,” she said.

She noted Florida’s Surgeon General issued a public health advisory June 20 on what individuals can do: “He emphasized the use of cloth masks by everyone in any setting where social and physical distancing is not possible.”

Ngo-Seidel added that vulnerable populations should continue to limit their exposure, and groups of more than 50 people where social and physical distancing is not possible should be avoided by everyone.

“I would like to just emphasize again, the other issue people raised for public health is why we don’t publish information about where cases work or live, and so the context of contact tracing for us is to find cases – we focus on the who and not the where. Compared to earlier in our epidemic where travel exposure was a key factor, we need to recognize we’re in a community transmission situation right now, so where a person has been has become less important; it’s who they have been around, so it’s better to assume the virus could be anywhere, rather than say this location is safe and this location is not.”

Ngo-Seidel said she wants to see things open safely, and that the health department has free masks for those who need them, so not having one should not be an issue.

Chairman Danny Leeper called the situation concerning and said businesses must adhere to the public health advisory guidelines, declaring, “We have a duty to protect the public,” and later warning, “We are putting our businesses on notice tonight.”

Those who have concerns about businesses not following the public health mandates can call Emergency Management at (904) 548-0900 and they can assist citizens with making a complaint to the DBPR.

Other agenda items included a presentation on the progress of improvements to the processes at the Planning and Economic Development Department, accepting the findings of the Phase I and II county vulnerability assessment performed by the Balmoral Group, approving an application for state funds in the amount of $3.8 million, which is approximately 25% of the total funds that could be made available to the county via the federal CARES Act, and approving a contract with Government Services Group to manage the documentation.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to the chairman of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners by the wrong first name. The chairman's first name is Danny. We apologize for the error.