Tough calls over local mask mandates; DeSantis renders them toothless, and Trump goes maskless

President Trump stands unmasked among supporters, many also unmasked, at a campaign rally in Sanford on Oct. 12, his first since contracting COVID-19. Screenshot credit: PBS

Tempers flared and tensions were evident Tuesday, when Martin County commissioners split on whether to repeal their local mask mandate following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lifting of statewide COVID-19 restrictions on Sept. 25.

The evening before, both DeSantis and President Donald Trump showed up maskless at Trump’s campaign rally in Central Florida, setting the stage for what appears to be wider efforts to get rid of mask mandates in some municipalities and counties, though the issue is a tough one.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, followed by First Lady Casey DeSantis, walks through the crowd at Trump’s campaign rally Tuesday in Sanford, giving high fives and wearing no mask. Screenshot credit: PBS

In many cases, local masking decisions involve heated exchanges and close votes. And some local governments plan to keep their mask mandates for the time being.

But in Martin County’s case, after a 2-2 vote to retain the mandate, the commission voted again hours later with its fifth member present and repealed the mask mandate with a 3-2 vote.

Commissioner Sarah Heard said the repeal “breaks my heart” and Commission Chairman Harold Jenkins said DeSantis’ action forced the commission’s hand, rendering the county’s mandate no more than “a sack of air.”

“We haven’t had a mandate since the governor took it away,” said Jenkins, who voted for the repeal with a sense of resignation. “It’s completely idiotic. Having an ordinance with no teeth that has zero enforcement is ridiculous.”

No one seemed happy.

“I wish the masks were no longer necessary. … However, I do not believe we are out of the woods yet,” said Commissioner Edward Ciampi, who voted to extend the mandate. “I’m consistently sticking with the medical professionals that live and work and protect and heal us right here in our community. You’re not going to magically heal yourself with advice from YouTube videos.”

He concluded, “Until I hear from doctors here that tell me we don’t need the masks anymore, I’m in favor of the masks.”

But Commissioner Doug Smith, who broke the tie and helped repeal the mandate, insisted, “I think people are perfectly capable of making decisions for their family and for others in the community.”

Martin, on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is one of several counties that required the wearing of face masks in public and which claim their infection rates declined as a result. (None of the masking rules apply to public schools, which set their own policies).

Martin County commissioners retained their mandate even after DeSantis hampered their ability to enforce it by lifting fines and penalties for violations by individuals. Like all municipalities, Martin County was allowed to continue enforcing its ordinance among local businesses, according to DeSantis’ order, including issuing fines.

But effective Tuesday, the entire mandate in Martin is repealed and a new county order will “strongly recommend” the wearing of masks in public.

Martin County is not alone.

Elsewhere, the city of Lakeland in Polk County has ditched the mask mandate, letting it expire earlier this month, according to the Lakeland Ledger. “Lakeland commissioners allowed the city’s requirement that facial coverings be worn in indoor public spaces to expire at 5 p.m. Monday (Oct. 5),” the newspaper reported.

In late September, Manatee County, on the Gulf Coast side of Florida, made the same decision, with county commissioners voting 4-3 to “drop the countywide face-covering resolution and replace it with a proclamation that people should still wear masks when they cannot safely distance,” according to Fox 13 News.

And in north Florida’s Nassau County on the Atlantic Coast, a county spokeswoman said county commissioners in late September voted 3-2 during a special meeting to end its mask mandate, though there were some exceptions, according to WJXT News4Jax.

In southwest Florida, Collier County’s mask mandate will expire in less than two weeks, on Oct. 22. Communications Manager Debbie Curry told the Phoenix no individuals were ever fined over the mask mandates, but five fines were issued against two related businesses: a restaurant cited for violations three times and a produce market, fined twice, which defied the order and is suing the county over the dispute.

Jacksonville’s city mask mandate, issued by executive order by Mayor Lenny Curry shortly before the Republican National Convention, withstood a court challenge and was extended last month at least through Oct. 27, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Meanwhile, Gadsden and Leon counties in North Florida are among the municipalities that have not repealed their mask restrictions, according to their online ordinances.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber wants to not only keep the local mask mandate but wants DeSantis to restore the city’s ability to enforce it, calling the governor’s action “a huge mistake.” Gelber wrote to DeSantis urging him to reconsider his suspension of fines, according to WSVN in Miami Beach.

At a contentious public hearing early this week, the Winter Haven City Commission in Central Florida voted to repeal its mandate in light of DeSantis’ Sept. 25 action and replaced it with a resolution to strongly encourage all residents and visitors to continue wearing masks in public.

“With the virus spreading all over Florida, why in heaven’s name would you drop using face masks?” asked resident Paula Appelbaum in a letter submitted to the commission. “The president has it. Isn’t that enough? (Trump’s doctor recently said the president was “no longer considered a transmission risk to others,” according to the New York Times.)

“I want to support the economy, but if people stop wearing the masks before there is a vaccine that has been given to most of the country’s population, I will return to my self-imposed quarantine,” Appelbaum wrote.

She added, “Gov. DeSantis’ full reopening of restaurants ensures I will not venture into a restaurant.”

No one supporting the repeal in Winter Haven spoke or submitted a letter, but criticism was posted on the commission Facebook Live meeting page condemning the mandate.

A commenter identified as Amber Faith Horn posted: “The state is fully open.. no more mask mandate period… If a person chooses to wear a mask then so be it… but the rest of us should no longer be “forced” to wear one if we are not ill! PERIOD!!!! #NOMOREMASK”

To which this reply came from a commenter, also on the Facebook Live page, identified as Amanda Lee VanderHeyden-Aburto: “The state was only opened to allow the covid super spreader in to hold his rally, not because its safe. PERIOD!!!”

The so-called “super spreader” could be President Trump, given that the president and the First Lady recently tested positive for COVID-19 as well as two dozen other people connected to the White House.

Meanwhile, private businesses that wish to require the wearing of masks by employees and customers may do so, as in the case of Publix, which has required the wearing of masks since July 21 and encourages customers who do not wish to wear masks to utilize Publix’s pick-up and delivery services, available outside the stores.