No Mask Mandate For Okaloosa County

Jul 21, 2020

Fort Walton Beach resident Taylor Kennedy speaks at the Okaloosa County Commissioner's meeting asking the board to consider a mask mandate
Credit Okaloosa County

Okaloosa County Commissioners did not pass a mask mandate, but instead an ordinance mandating businesses to place signage that specifies whether face coverings are required inside. The ordinance goes into effect Aug. 1. 

“I’m sad we didn’t do more,” said Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel. “At least it’s something.” 

Commissioners looked at a possible mandate similar to one passed in Leon County last month, but both Commissioner Nathan Boyles and Chairman Trey Goodwin were not in favor. Commissioner Graham Fountain was not present for the meeting.

Enforcing the signage at businesses was a plan B and passed unanimously. Ketchel said she felt ashamed that a mask mandate couldn’t be passed. Commissioner Kelly Windes said it was a “slap in the face to health care professionals.” 

Last week, the county’s COVID-19 advisory committee voted unanimously to recommend a mask mandate to commissioners. Chairwoman Dr. Deborah Simpkin spoke to the board Tuesday morning with a laundry list of reasons to enact the mandate citing the county’s infection rate, which is one to two — that is two people are infected per positive case — and the county’s 12% positive rate. 

Public comments were mixed. Arguments against a mandate included personal freedoms and what some residents believe is a lack of evidence on a mask’s effectiveness. 

“I’m not anti-mask, I’m anti-fear,” said Okaloosa County resident Renee Christopher. “A number of businesses require masks. A countywide mandate is an encroachment on our rights. Let the businesses take care of mandates.” 

Commissioner Ketchel compared the mask debate to one the board had four months ago about beaches. After the county has been actively encouraging masks, she said she’s “stunned” by the number of people she sees who aren’t wearing them. 

She said moments like today take “political courage.”

“Politics be damned, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” she said during the board discussion. “This is a worldwide pandemic. It’s time we did the right thing as Americans.”

Resident Taylor Kennedy has been outspoken online and at county meetings about the need for a mandate calling it the “patriotic thing to do.” 

“Wearing a mask shows you care for the people in your community,” she said. “Be the leaders we’re not seeing.” 

Commissioners did approve $2.2 million from the CARES Act to be directed to the Department of Health in Okaloosa County to increase staffing, including health care professionals and contact tracers. Dr. Karen Chapman, the department’s director, said the extra staff will help meet the challenges, but won’t be enough to stop the increase of cases. She did not speak on the mask mandate at the meeting. 

“We can’t hire a way out,” she said. 

State Sen. Doug Broxson was also at the meeting to discuss blood and plasma donations. He is challenging all elected officials to donate blood every 60 days as a way to encourage more blood and plasma donations, including those who have the antibodies to fight COVID-19.

“Florida, by the end of the week, will be at 400,000 cases,” said Broxson.  “Giving our blood for the sake of our constituents is doing something tangible. There are more than 300,000 (in Florida) people that have the antibody. This is a life-changing thing we can do.” 

Okaloosa County also will spend about $100,000 on a marketing campaign to encourage mask wearing in the county through social media and advertising, such as print ads and billboards. 

But for some of the people at the meeting or watching from home, those actions aren’t enough. 

Sonia Vasquez is a local nurse who gave her public comments over the phone. She said her mother got COVID-19 after coming in contact with a maskless person. 

“I’m begging and pleading with you guys to trust me,” she said after commissioners voted. “I’ve had loved ones die. If you don’t want to wear a mask, then stay home.”