Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday morning to remove the mask mandate at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Okaloosa Island starting May 15.
Safety practices such as social distancing and limiting capacity to 75% will remain in effect.
The non-agenda item was brought to the board Tuesday morning by Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel, a strong proponent for masks last summer as the county and the state were experiencing a surge of COVID cases.
At the meeting, Ketchel said it should be up to individuals whether to mask up.
“At this point, we have so many people vaccinated, or those who have the opportunity to vaccinate, and think it’s really a personal choice whether we wear a mask or not at this point,” she said.
Late last year, Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health-Okaloosa County, said the county was experiencing a “serious outbreak of COVID-19.” Now, with the number of vaccinated people climbing and the number of daily infections decreasing, her tone has changed in her weekly email.
“The downward trend that we began to see in early March for case count continues and has spanned 21 days,” wrote Dr. Chapman. “So far, Okaloosa has not seen a surge associated with Spring Break. This is good news.”
More good news: Okaloosa’s positivity rate has been below 5% for nearly two weeks — this is the first time the county has sustained this low level since the pandemic began, said Chapman. These numbers are on par with other Northwest Florida counties where daily infections and positivity rates have dropped in 2021.
Okaloosa has had nine deaths from COVID-19 since March 21 of this year, two of which were residents of long-term care facilities.
Dr. Chapman also touted Okaloosa’s vaccination rate.
“Okaloosa is currently ahead of the nation with 63.3% of our seniors fully vaccinated and on par with the nation for seniors having had at least one dose,” she said in her newsletter. Since it was written on Sunday, the number of fully-vaccinated seniors is closer to 70%.
With vaccination eligibility now opened up to all adults in Florida, Dr. Chapman expressed how effective the vaccines are and addressed concerns, such as the rapid development.
“The speed of development was due to the sharing of research on a scale never attempted before – and every study, and every phase of every trial, was carefully reviewed and approved by a safety board at the FDA,” she wrote. “The process was transparent and rigorous throughout and has ongoing oversight and expert review and approval. What did get cut — U.S. governmental bureaucracy and the associated red tape.”
The availability of the vaccine was one of the talking points for lifting the convention center’s mask mandate.
The convention center was closed from March 18 to June 1 last year at the height of the pandemic. Jennifer Adams, director of the Tourist Development Department, said the center has had no problems enforcing CDC guidelines. Recently, the center hosted 19,000 kids and coaches for a competition at the center. The center already requests any groups to sign liability forms acknowledging the risk of exposure.
“We moved them, we did not allow everyone to gather,” said Adams. “Pre-functionary, we’ve changed the flow of entries and exits.”
Adams said that a number of staff have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine, while some have opted to not get the shot. She asked for time for staff to get vaccinated — if they choose to — before the mask mandate was lifted, which is why the date was set for May 15.
Federal mask mandates are still in place at the Destin Fort Walton Beach Airport, public transportation and any federal buildings.
The board did not lift mask requirements at the jail where just earlier this year, Okaloosa County Corrections Officer Jason Goen died of COVID-19, although it was not confirmed whether Goen contracted the virus at work.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles said he didn’t want to “peel back” the existing mandate at the jail for safety and financial reasons.
“We’re on the hook for their medical care,” he said of the jail inmates. “It’s a heightened risk point and cost rate.”
When asked for his opinion from the board, Okaloosa Director of Public Safety Patrick Maddox said any move away from the CDC and Department of Health guidelines would need a “solid reason” to do so. He also cited Dr. Chapman’s metrics showing that vaccinations have contributed to a decrease in daily infections and deaths.
“In all honesty, the safest position is to follow CDC and DOH guidelines, because that has been our path up to this point,” he said.
But Boyles said he doesn’t think Dr. Chapman would agree that the board has followed all guidelines. He said the board hasn’t “blindly” followed every recommendation from state nor federal officials but has instead taken a more broad approach.
“I think what we’ve done as a board, most of the time, is tried to take information from all reliable sources and make decisions that we felt were in the best interests of our citizens based upon lots of different, and sometimes widely varying, opinions,” he said.