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Fort Walton Beach Council Won’t Mandate Masks

Taylor Kennedy/Courtesy Photo

After 3 1/2 hours of public comments and discussion, Fort Walton Beach City Council made no action on a citywide mask mandate.

Tuesday’s special meeting was called to discuss the city’s stance on masks and face coverings and receive public input. The input was just as divided as the council. 

Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, said she “strongly recommends” citizens wear face masks in public settings, citing similar statistics she’s shared with Okaloosa County commissioners and the School Board. 

“We have to learn to live with this virus, this virus is not going to go away,” she told the council. 

The city received 89 letters regarding a possible mask mandate; of those, 81% were in favor of a mandate. However, most public comments at the meeting were in opposition — more so about a mandate and not about masks. 

“It’s a false sense of security,” said Dr. Ruben Martinez. “I will always choose freedom over an overreaching sense of safety.” 

Resident Travis Smith said he didn’t believe a citywide mandate would be effective considering how the city limits are drawn. That’s something Councilman Nick Allegretto echoed. 

“You can’t legislate self-responsibility,” said Smith. “If you’re wearing them here and not wearing them there, what are you doing? Not much.” 

Health care officials at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center and White-Wilson Medical Center each wrote a letter asking city leaders to encourage face masks. 

“We implore your body to adopt measures that will require the wearing of masks in public spaces and businesses when social distancing is not achievable,” wrote Alan Gieseman, CEO at White-Wilson. 

“What we’re trying to do is buy time, we’re trying to buy time for a vaccine, we’re trying to buy time for a cure for this,” Fort Walton Beach Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Kiskaddon said at the meeting. 

Councilman Allegretto said a mask mandate shouldn’t be up to the city. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he believes a mandate would backfire. In June, he said “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” 

“This is a state issue,” he said. “I feel our governor has let us down. Literally everyone knows (masks) work. I don’t know what good a city mandate will do.” 

On Monday, the Jackson Health employee union, representing more than 5,000 health care professionals, called on the governor to issue a mandate

Councilman Kirby Locklear was the most outspoken in favor of a mandate, citing the mandates made on Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field. 

“COVID is affecting the mission, airmen and women are becoming infected when they leave the gates,” he said. “The impact is a loss of test mission, and costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars.” 

He also read a letter from Tom Frisch, whose 26-year-old daughter, Desi’Rae Wysocki-McIntosh recently died of COVID-19. 

“It’s not taking away anyone’s rights, it’s saving people’s lives.” 

Credit Taylor Kennedy/Courtesy Photo

Tuesday morning in Walton County, commissioners did not make any motion on a mask ordinance after an hour of public comments at their meeting. Most of the public comments were against a possible mandate. Resident Tabitha Howard called it “tyranny,” and said she would not comply. 

On Monday, a Palm Beach County judge denied a request for temporary injunction to block a countywide mask mandate and ruled that the mandate was, in fact, constitutional. 

The Walton County commission could consider a nonbinding resolution recommending face masks at their Aug. 11 meeting.

Last week, the city of Mary Esther adopted a mandatory mask mandate for individuals in a business to wear a face covering effective Friday. Okaloosa County passed an ordinance that requires businesses to post signage indicating whether face masks are required.  

Fort Walton Beach City Council discussed tabling the decision for a later date, but the motion failed. The council considered actions made in Mary Esther and Okaloosa County. They also discussed actions such as asking DeSantis to reconsider a statewide mandate and a resolution to encourage citizens and visitors to maintain social distancing and wear a mask when keeping distant isn’t feasible. 

Locklear said those actions would not do much but make the council feel better. 

“If the action is an empty gesture, I’d rather have no action,” he said.