Palm Beach County commissioners vote 7-0 to require masks in public indoor spots, not outdoors.
By Hannah Morse
Palm Beach Daily News
Facing an unrelenting crowd of maskless constituents, Palm Beach County commissioners agreed Tuesday to require all residents and visitors to wear facial coverings in buildings where the public is welcome, such as grocery stores and restaurants.
“I think this is going to be the most effective pivot point in … suppressing the spread of the coronavirus,” County Mayor Dave Kerner said after the vote. “We need to see how this works first before we go deeper into our economy reopening.”
A county proposal to allow more businesses to reopen is on hold because of the huge spike in cases during June, Kerner said after talking Monday to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The county recommended in April that people wear masks but had not required it.
The county has recorded more than 3,600 coronavirus cases over the past two weeks, one third-of the 11,180 cases recorded since the pandemic began in mid-March.
The order, approved unanimously, likely will be made official on Wednesday. While commissioners debated an automatic expiration after 30 days, they left the power to rescind the order to the county administrator, knowing that any commissioner can bring it up for reconsideration at any time.
Anyone not following the mask mandate will be met first with education, Kerner said, although violating an emergency order could result in civil penalties up to $500.
“Our goal is not to arrest citizens. It’s not to necessarily fine citizens. It’s to encourage citizens and help them help us protect all of us to keep our county moving forward, to keep our businesses open, to keep our recreational activities going forward,” County Administrator Verdenia Baker said. “It’s a matter of educating, putting the information out and knowing we’re protecting each other.”
The vote came after about 50 people, given two minutes each, addressed the commission for about two hours. Most vehemently opposed the move, saying it would infringe on their rights and that masks have not been proven effective and in some cases, members of the public argued, masks themselves are hazardous.
Speakers also complained that their voices weren’t being heard because a majority of the board made up its mind before the meeting.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said most of the calls and emails to her office favored the mandate. She pointed to other government rules in the name of safety that are not viewed by most as intrusive.
“I want to thank the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress for requiring my teenagers to wear a seat belt in a car,” she said. “I want to thank them that they changed the laws and they can’t buy cigarettes or vaping devices now until they were 21 years old. I want to thank them for speed limits so I don’t drive like a bat out of hell on I-95. All of those measures are in place to keep me safe, to keep my family safe.”
Crowd explodes in outrage
Palm Beach County is the last in South Florida to issue a countywide mandate. Broward and Miami-Dade had issued orders in April. In June, Palm Beach coronavirus cases grew at a faster pace than those in Broward County, which has more people.
Palm Beach County’s order will mimic those of its neighbors to the south, Baker said. The two South Florida counties allowed medical and religious exemptions, and did not children under 2 to wear masks. They also don’t require masks in situations where people are doing activities where masks cannot be safely worn, like swimming or exercising.
Immediately after the vote as the commission recessed the meeting, the audience exploded in outrage, hurling insults, screaming threats and claiming the board had violated the U.S. Constitution.
“Shame on you!” they shouted.
Many opponents counted on Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, who once reasoned that choosing not to wear a mask is a form of protest akin to protesting racial injustice. But he went along with the majority.
“I hate the idea of talking about mandatory face coverings. It goes against my grain,” Weinroth said. “But the numbers we saw this week were just out of this world.”
The opponents argued that mandating masks infringed on their rights and that mixed messaging led to confusion and distrust.
‘Taking food off my children’s plate’
“We need proof,” Ann Margo Cannon said, armed with nearly 900 petitions opposing the mandate. “Residents do not take it lightly when arbitrary and capricious rules are forced down their throats for the greater good, and then we are given no logical scientific basis for their rules.”
They chastised the commission for citing mixed messages on masks from federal and world health officials and questioned the science behind mask-wearing.
Angelique Contreras blasted commissioners, saying she and others like her are discriminated against for not wearing masks because they have medical conditions.
“By approving this mask mandate today, you’re purposefully taking food off my children’s plate. My options (for grocery shopping) are already limited,” she said. “After today, I won’t have that option anymore because I’m discriminated on every single time I tell somebody I have a medical condition that does not allow me to wear a mask.”
Several speakers claimed that there was little evidence that masks help contain the spread of the virus, and that any such mandate is akin to prescribing a medical device.
“This board has no authority for medical treatment or prevention of the disease because you had no license to practice medicine,” one said.
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said people have their rights, but public health laws are established to safeguard those same people.
“Everybody has their individual rights. Nobody believes in individual rights more than I. However this is about the public. This is what you’re doing to other people and what you’re not doing to other people. I wear my mask to protect you, you wear your mask to protect me. That’s the whole intent behind this,” she said.
Four South Florida lawyers signed a cease and desist letter, sent to commissioners on Monday, demanding the board not issue “further draconian ordinances.”
“The mandate the board is considering is arbitrary and unreasonable and not backed by a compelling state interest or any facts proving such an interest whatsoever,” the letter stated.
The lawyers argue that such a mandate violates a citizen’s right to privacy and due process, and that the county should follow government guidelines of recommending face coverings, not requiring them.
The letter states they intend to explore “any and all available legal avenues of recourse.”
At least three counties, including Miami-Dade, have been sued for mandating masks.
The county’s congressional delegation had urged commissioners to support a mask mandate.
“With the alarming increase in COVID-19 cases in Florida, I thank the Palm Beach County Commission for their decision regarding mask wearing. Their action today will save lives. Gov. DeSantis should follow their lead,” U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, said in a statement Tuesday.
Former state Rep. Irving Slosberg also supported the move, saying the website for his organization Dory Saves Lives, dedicated to his daughter who died in a car crash, teaches people the importance of wearing masks in cars with more than one passenger.
“To turn a blind eye to such a practical policy solution in the face of an overwhelming problem like COVID-19 is not just misguided, it’s dangerous,” he said.