SHALIMAR — With a 4-0 vote, the Okaloosa County Commission today approved an ordinance directing all businesses countywide to post signs on their entry doors stating who, if anyone, needs to wear a mask while inside each business establishment.
The emergency ordinance is expected to take effect in about 10 days, or once the Florida Department of State finalizes it, and will remain in place until Oct. 1.
While the ordinance applies to businesses in both the unincorporated and incorporated areas of the county, municipalities have the option to opt out of the ordinance.
Commissioner Graham Fountain did not attend today’s meeting.
Before the board voted on the ordinance, commissioners heard from many area residents who spoke in favor of a mask mandate, as well as from many who oppose such a mandate.
But before the public comment period began, Dr. Deborah Simpkin, who chairs the county’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee, told the commission that the committee unanimously agreed Friday to recommend the county mandate mask wearing when social distancing isn’t possible.
Research has shown that a mask wearer who does not have the coronavirus can reduce the chance of getting it by up to 65%, Simpkin said.
“All of us as health professionals have lost patients from COVID,” she added.
Also speaking in support of a mask mandate were Fort Walton Beach City Councilman Kirby Locklear and Mary Esther City Councilwoman Charlotte McKamy.
Saying she was speaking as a citizen, McKamy said thousands of tourists in the county are spreading the coronavirus, especially to restaurant workers, because they are not wearing masks or social distancing themselves.
“I don’t understand the controversy about wearing masks,” Fort Walton Beach resident Dave Hancock told commissioners. “It’s public safety. The stores and businesses are leading the way. You need to follow their lead.”
More scientific research is needed, however, about the effectiveness of masks in deterring the disease, Destin resident Julie White said.
Local resident Carol Cox said deaf people, rape victims, children with autism and people suffering from PTSD are among those who would suffer from a mask mandate. And Elizabeth Powers, of Niceville, equated such a mandate to “a portal into another dimension” featuring other types of “mind control.”
Destin resident Tracey Tapp, however, said public health officials agree that masks save lives and will get the virus under control, which will help the economy.
“The basic function of government is to keep us safe,” but proper guidance is not being provided from the federal or state level, Tapp said.
Sonya Vasquez, a nurse from Fort Walton Beach who has had three friends die from COVID-19, urged the commission to implement a mask mandate at least for one month.
After the lengthy public comment period, the commission agreed to at least discuss a mask mandate.
Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said she doesn’t think people need to wear masks outdoors, but they should be worn indoors.
“We’re trying to take care of each other,” Ketchel said. “It’s time to do the right thing as Americans. Let’s make a difference here.”
Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin, however, said he has “a huge fundamental problem with a mandatory mask requirement, because I have not seen evidence that it works.”
And Commissioner Nathan Boyles said the medical system currently is able to keep up with the demand from coronavirus sufferers for healthcare services.
“I want to avoid a rush to action and take a measured, structured approach,” Boyles said. “I would absolutely consider a mask mandate, but not today.”
He then suggested the board consider taking the “low-intrusion, low-burden step” of approving an ordinance requiring businesses to post signs on their mask-wearing rules or lack of rules.
According to the emergency ordinance that the board eventually approved, each sign must, at a minimum, be in English and be legible to the average individual at a distance of at least six feet.
The signage shall specify who, if anyone, is required to wear a face covering while within the establishment and under what conditions, such as only when social distancing is not possible. Also, the signage shall separately and explicitly indicate whether or not face coverings are required of on-duty employees and customers or guests.
A violation of the ordinance is a noncriminal infraction. Penalties to businesses for violating it include a $50 fine for the first offense.
The signage required by the ordinance “will allow our citizens to make informed decisions,” Goodwin said. “This empowers our citizens, rather than handcuff them.”
While supporting the ordinance, Commissioner Kelly Windes said it’s “a slap in the face of the healthcare workers who stood up here” in support of a mask mandate, and that the county “will have to do better.”
Earlier in the meeting, the commission agreed to use federal CARES Act money to pay the $2.2 million cost of adding temporary personnel to the Okaloosa County Department of Health to help battle the coronavirus crisis.
The money will pay for 69 positions, including 22 registered nurses or epidemiologists and 20 call center staff members, between now and the end of this calendar year.
“This personnel request is predicated on responding to 60 new infections per day, on average, as well as performing and managing up to 2,440 COVID-19 diagnostic tests per week,” Karen Chapman, director of the county Department of Health, said in a July 13 letter to County Administrator John Hofstad.