On Wednesday, a majority of the Mary Esther City Council approved an ordinance that, starting July 31, will require individuals to wear face coverings while in Mary Esther businesses.
At a special meeting Tuesday, the Fort Walton Beach City Council plans to decide whether the city should update its response to the COVID-19 crisis, namely, whether to implement a mask mandate.
On Wednesday, a majority of the Mary Esther City Council approved an ordinance that, starting July 31, will require individuals to wear face coverings while in Mary Esther businesses. The city is the first local municipality to enact a mandatory mask mandate.
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Mary Esther’s decision was made the day after the Okaloosa County Commission discussed mandating mask usage but did not implement a mandate.
Instead, the commission approved an ordinance that was added to its meeting agenda late in the session. The ordinance takes effect Aug. 1 and will require businesses countywide to post their mask policies on their entry doors.
Municipalities have the option of opting out of the county ordinance.
Fort Walton Beach Mayor Dick Rynearson and other local government officials shared their thoughts Thursday on the overall issue of mask wearing during the pandemic.
“We’re aware of what the county and Mary Esther did,” Rynearson said. “We’ll discuss it all Tuesday. I don’t want to speculate what the council will decide at that meeting. It’s certainly one we need to have.”
The session is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
“There are many people on both sides of the mask issue,” Rynearson said. “I encourage everyone to wear masks to the extent possible and practice social distancing.”
At the Destin City Council’s meeting on Monday, the council agreed to follow the county’s direction on mask-wearing issues.
“We’re going to go ahead and follow the county’s policy right now on the signage” required of businesses, Destin City Councilman Cyron Marler said Thursday. “If the county doesn’t have an ordinance requiring mandatory masks and we (create one), there would be a battle.”
Marler added that Mary Esther has a much smaller population, and far fewer businesses, compared to Destin and Fort Walton Beach.
Mary Esther has about 4,500 residents, according to the website, worldpopulationreview.com. Destin’s population of about 15,000 often more than doubles during the tourist season. Niceville has a little more than 16,000 residents, Fort Walton Beach has about 23,000, and the county seat of Crestview has almost 26,000.
Overall, Destin’s longest-serving councilman, who is not seeking re-election, said he’s “on the fence” when it comes to a mask mandate.
“I have Parkinson’s,” Marler said. “And I work outside and am sweating like a dog. My breathing would be encumbered if I had to wear a mask. There is a true concern and fear out there by people about getting (the coronavirus), but are we ready to shut down our country? This area, and Destin, cannot take another hit.”
A violation of the county’s ordinance or Mary Esther’s ordinance is a noncriminal infraction, with penalties that include a $50 fine for the first offense.
The signage required by the county’s ordinance “will allow our citizens to make informed decisions,” Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin said at the commission meeting. “This empowers our citizens, rather than handcuff them.”
While municipalities can opt out of the county’s ordinance, Crestview officials do not believe the county has the authority to implement it in the first place, Crestview City Manager Tim Bolduc said.
“We don’t think the county ordinance, which wasn’t posted beforehand or provided to the municipalities, should have been voted on and approved at the meeting,” Bolduc said. “It’s dictating code enforcement actions inside the city. We love our relationship with the county. Hopefully, we’ll figure out a way to work together.”
He said Crestview officials are not considering mandating mask wearing inside the city limits.
“We believe it oversteps the local authority of our jurisdiction to dictate what happens inside local businesses,” Bolduc said. “Those issues are all handled at the state level.”
Crestview officials continue to encourage city residents to wear masks and practice social distancing, he said.
Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the city’s stance on the county or Mary Esther ordinance.
Mary Esther City Councilman Aaron Bacchi, who was elected to his first four-year council term in March, strongly supports the city’s mask mandate.
“In my mind, if my vote helps save the life of even one person, then it’s worth it,” Bacchi said. “I realize not everyone will agree with my decision or Mary Esther’s decision, but I could not vote ‘no.’ This is something we as residents can do to save lives and listen to our medical professionals as well.”
City code enforcement officers will have the mask ordinance at their disposal, Bacchi said.
He said the new ordinance is based on one in Leon County that was challenged in court and upheld by a judge.
“I’m proud of Mary Esther for being the leader in the county and passing this ordinance,” Bacchi said.