Mayor on Masks: ‘We Want to Educate People’

Jun 29, 2020

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.
Credit City of Pensacola

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson used much of his weekly virtual news conference Monday, to elaborate on his decision to make face coverings mandatory in businesses inside the city proper.

On Friday, the mayor issued state of emergency 20-03, which requires both staff and customers to wear a mask.

“The goal was to have it apply to businesses, since it’s difficult or impossible to practice social distancing in many of these businesses,” the mayor said. “I’d like to emphasize that this order only applies to businesses within the city limits. It does not apply to unincorporated Escambia County.”

This past weekend was the most active since the coronavirus began, according to the Florida Department of Health. Escambia and Santa Rosa counties both saw 18% jumps — 256 cases reported in Escambia and 57 in Santa Rosa. Robinson says wearing a mask does not – as some claim – impinge on personal freedoms.

“Go to a restaurant right now; can you smoke?” asked Robinson. “Go to a public building – can you smoke? Can you light up? You have all these freedoms, [but] you cannot smoke. If you want to destroy your own health and smoke, you can go home, you can go in your own car. The problem is that when you smoke it impacts potentially other people’s health. It is the same thing that’s happening here with the mask.”

For most of the pandemic, Robinson held off requiring masks in the city. His change of mind was twofold – one was speaking with a number of businesses trying to enforce their own mask policies.

“They needed support in doing it; that came out loud and clear last Wednesday when we were talking with some people, so we began to talk in-house,” Robinson said. “The other part is clearly dealing with the hospitals, and what they are telling me. There’s not a single hospital, there’s not a single doctor here that’s not telling us about it.”

Last week, state officials once again shut down bars across Florida, because many chose to ignore guidelines on social gathering. Could restaurants be far behind? The mayor doesn’t intend to close down any other businesses, but he adds in beating the coronavirus, they are now at a crossroads – closings or the mask.

Robinson prefers the latter.

Credit City of Pensacola

“You look back at when we had Phase-1 open and even early Phase-2, we still had low numbers,” the mayor said. “We had low numbers up to 9 days ago. As [Gov. Ron DeSantis] said, it’s not opening the businesses that created the challenge. It’s ourselves getting lax about things like washing hands, shaking hands, wearing masks. These are things that we can control individually.”

The other factor is large groups – which according to the DOH, has lowered the median age of the COVID-19 patient from the mid-60s to the mid-30s.

“People in that particular age group tend to congregate; it’s our own behavior,” Robinson said. “It’s not the businesses being open, it’s us and the way we’re managing our behavior. If we could manage our behavior correct [sic], we could beat this thing back in three weeks; and I think we could do that. But it really takes all of us working together.”

One sticking point is having a face covering order but not the teeth of enforcement. Robinson says at this point, they’re focusing on education and awaiting word from the Pensacola City Council.

“The businesses have the ability to kick people out if they want to; so from our standpoint, it really becomes what they want to do it they’re concerned about their employees and the health of their employees,” said the mayor. “We would want to give them the ability to do something. We want to educate people as much as possible, so right now that’s what we’re looking at.”

The Council is scheduled to meet in special session Tuesday afternoon to discuss possible sanctions for non-compliance.

And it’s not just businesses and individuals feeling the increase. Pensacola’s first responders – fire and police -- are now at yellow alert, meaning at least 15% of their workforces are hit by the virus.

“Our policy is, once you know you’re in potential contact with somebody who has [COVID-19], until you get a negative test you are somewhat sidelined,” said Robinson. “And it takes about five days to know whether you have it or not. Yellow does not mean we can’t do stuff; yellow means that we can do everything we need to be doing. What it means is we don’t have a lot of slack.”

In Santa Rosa County, the City of Gulf Breeze has mandated face coverings, and after an emergency meeting Monday night, the City of Milton rescinded the Mayor's mandate.

Mayor Grover Robinson is hoping the two counties will follow suit. 

“If Escambia and Santa Rosa both did one – with the municipalities within them already participating – I think that’s something that would be very strong for the region,” said Robinson. “And we could really begin to drive COVID back down to where it was when it was a non-factor. That’s the discussions we had with the hospitals.”

Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley has been quoted as being opposed to ordering face coverings, saying the public doesn’t want it. But a survey of 865 Escambia Countians by pollster Political Matrix -- commissioned by the InWeekly newspaper – showed more than seven in 10 favor mask use.