As Florida’s number of coronavirus cases started to rise this summer, local governments held marathon emergency meetings about mask mandates, taking hours of public comments and fielding passionate arguments on the issue.
But only three cities in the local area made the decision to pass an ordinance. In the city limits of Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Mary Esther, masks are required inside businesses. And businesses owners and city staff say there’s been little to no trouble.
Gulf Breeze and Pensacola passed mask mandates in June that required individuals to wear face coverings in businesses. Exceptions include children under 6 and those with medical or sensory issues.
Samantha Abell, Gulf Breeze city manager, says the city’s COVID cases have been reduced by half since the ordinance was adopted June 26.
“At that time, the city had a peak number of cases of 25 which increased in July to a monthly average of 30 cases inside the city limits. August numbers declined to an average 13,” she said.
Education and compliance
On July 22, Mary Esther City Council voted 4-1 to adopt a mask ordinance. The meeting took just 46 minutes, a stark contract to neighboring city, Fort Walton Beach, where the council discussed a possible mask mandate for nearly four hours in July without taking any action, or most recently the Okaloosa County School Board, which held a seven-hour emergency meeting on masks only to end up agreeing that they were “strongly encouraged.”
Only Mary Esther’s and Pensacola’s ordinances include a penalty. A violation of Mary Esther’s ordinance could result in a fine of $50 for the first offense and $125 for a second offense. The same goes for Pensacola which also adds $250 for a third offense and up to $500 and as much as 60 days in jail for a fourth offense.
Kimmy Hey, public information specialist at the city of Pensacola, said code enforcement aims to educate when it comes to compliance.
“The city has not issued any citations to businesses to date,” she said. “If there was a complaint made against a business for not mandating the mask ordinance, code enforcement would make an informal visit to educate the business of the mask mandate’s purpose and importance.”
Similarly, Mary Esther City Manager Jared Cobb said they have had no violations.
“There was only one call for service to Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office (regarding the mask mandate), but it was canceled,” Cobb added.
Abell says the Gulf Breeze ordinance is akin to a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. A business could call police enforcement on a noncompliant customer, but it has not occurred.
“The city experiences a high level of compliance from tourists due to the business signage and mask availability at entrances,” she said.
A number of viral videos from across the country show angry store customers refusing to wear masks, but that hasn’t happened here. Courtney Henderson, co-owner of Pizzaz gift shop in Gulf Breeze, said employees wear masks or shields, but they don’t force customers.
“We’re not authority,” she said. “We’re good just sticking to monogramming.”
They have signage about the Gulf Breeze ordinance on their door. Masked or not, Henderson said customers have been respectful. Masks and shields continue to be popular items at the store.
Mark Packett, general manager at Yiota’s Greek Deli in Mary Esther, said most people wear their masks with no issue.
“I’d say about 80% of people come in with masks on, but there’s about 20% who are strongly against it,” he said.
Those opponents still wear their masks, which is a testament to their loyalty to the locally owned restaurant. Packett said masks help the staff stay safe and keep the business open after taking a hit in the beginning of the pandemic.
‘Show some leadership’
With Florida’s numbers on the decline, there may be questions of how long the mandates should last. Thursday, the state had its 29th straight day with a positivity rate of new cases below 10%.
Pensacola’s mandate is tied to their state of emergency which expires Sept. 24. Mary Esther will decide whether to extend their ordinance on Sept. 21, and Gulf Breeze evaluates their mandate no less than twice a month, said Abell.
“After discussion of benchmarks, the council agreed that because the city is heavily impacted by tourism from outside areas, there would need to be not only a reduction in surrounding areas but the absence of any new cases, as an ideal benchmark for lifting the mask order.”
While mask mandates have been a point of contention for some, the city of Mary Esther has only received about nine contacts (phone calls, emails, letters, etc.) regarding the issue. Six of them wanted a stronger approach to requiring masks and social distancing and three were against the mandate, said Cobb.
“One thing that helped Mary Esther was they have a lot of chain businesses that have already adopted mask policies; that helped the transition a bit,” said Cobb. “The City Council weighed the pros and cons, but at the end of the day, they wanted to show some leadership. It’s an important measure to protect public health.”
In Pensacola, Hey admits there was pushback from downtown businesses and residents, but there was more positive feedback. The city also made 20,000 masks available to the public for free to help raise awareness.
In Gulf Breeze, Abell said the letters from hospital administrators was a “strong influence” for the city’s decision to mandate masks.
“Masks do make a difference,” said Beau Pollard, administrator at Gulf Breeze Hospital. “As well as avoiding large crowds and washing our hands. We should all be following the CDC guidelines.”
Health care facilities were among the first businesses to require masks. Now, months into the pandemic, it’s become more accepted among patients and visitors after store requirements and local mandates.
“They get it. They understand,” he said.