County Commission finally achieves unanimity after hearing from numerous medical professionals

STUART – Two public meetings and a slew of medical professionals later, the Martin County Commission achieved a unanimous consensus June 19 on an emergency order mandating face masks for all employees of restaurants, grocery stores and any other retail establishment or businesses where social distancing is not possible. The order also urges all county residents wear masks when entering any public place and even outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

Most members of the Board admitted to struggling with the decision and having a recent change of heart due to the soaring number of positive COVID-19 cases in Martin County. Barely even a month ago, both Commissioners Doug Smith and Sarah Heard attempted to pass just such an order applying only to restaurant workers and food-service handlers but were shot down by the Commission majority leery of infringing upon individual liberties. Chairman Harold Jenkins was one of those dissenters who’s now changed his tune after fearing he’s been potentially exposed to the coronavirus and hearing grim statistics reported by Martin County Health Officer Carole Ann Vitani during her weekly update. Between June 12 and June 19, her staff confirmed more than 278 new positive cases and she got word of 80 more on the way into the meeting that day.

“I have changed my level of concern after seeing these numbers, especially after Carol Anne telling us she’s got 80 in the pipeline,” he said. “I was not for making anything mandatory and still have a little issue doing something that is completely unenforceable, but at the food worker level and the employees that can’t socially distance, I’m there.”

Several other medical professionals addressed the Commission during the special COVID-19 hearing, beginning with Cleveland Clinic Martin Health President Rob Lord, who guided its members through a series of graphs including one that reflected a dramatic rise in the local infection rate between March 12 and June 17. Insisting that rise wasn’t just due to increased tested as some sources including Governor Ron DeSantis have affirmed, Mr. Lord highlighted Martin County’s positivity rate as compared to nearby jurisdictions: 9.7 percent versus 5.6 in St. Lucie County and 2.7 percent in Indian River County.

“Martin County has slightly more cases then St. Lucie County and Indian River County combined,” he said pointing to the graph. “Then what you’d see after June 1 is frightening. From nearly 21 COVID-19 hospital admissions [in March] to nearly 60. We far and away are admitting more than we are discharging.”

The county is now seeing less positive number among the elderly and more positive cases between the ages of 19 and 64, which some people view as a good sign since fewer of that age bracket die from the effects of the virus. One of his other graphs, however, demonstrated that many of those are still ending up in the hospital.

“These are the people that aren’t supposed to wind up in the hospital I’m being told, and they’re the two highest columns,” he added. “There are potentially life-long consequences… the way this affects lungs and other body organs. We don’t know the long-term effects.”

His words also helped sway Commissioner Ed Ciampi, another former face-mask dissenter who actually seconded the motion that evening to approve the emergency order. He said the universal support among local medical professionals for wearing face masks in public cinched it for him.

“For quite a long time, I leaned on the personal freedom side,” he said. “But if you go back and look at the meetings, I really focused on how many people are in the hospital, how many people are in the ICU, how many people are passing away. On Tuesday [June 16] we had a couple of doctors come, and since then I think all of us have seen a tremendous amount of emails from medical professionals that universally said the same exact thing.”

Emergency Room Doctor Christine Starke was one of two physicians addressing the Board that day who urged commissioners to make face coverings in public mandatory for everyone as many other communities across Florida have done recently, including Orange and Osceola counties in Central Florida and Tampa and St. Petersburg on the west coast. She compared it to the controversial smoking ban begun in the 1990s on cigarettes in public buildings.

“Smokers complained about it being a violation of their freedom, but now most states have smoking bans because they understand that the personal freedom of an individual ends when it becomes a risk to others,” she said. “I feel the same can be said for wearing a mask at work, especially if you work by carrying a plate of food just inches from your face or you’re cutting somebody’s hair. If you don’t have a mask on, you’re potentially dangerous to others.”

She went on to point out that Martin Health now has 36 employees who’ve contracted the coronavirus, all contact-traced to the community rather than their workplace.

“For all of those [front-line employees] out there, I ask you to mandate that people wear a simple mask for the hour they’re at Target or while getting their nails done,” she insisted. “If they really can’t be inconvenienced enough to wear a simple mask to protect us and to protect their neighbors, then they should stay home.”

Stuart Neurologist Robin Kass concurred.

“A close friend of mine, a healthy middle-aged woman, just tested positive,” she said. “For anyone who thinks that it can’t be transmitted asymptomatically, she got it from someone who was asymptomatic who subsequently tested [positive]. Hence the importance of wearing masks.”

Although none of the public speakers opposed the emergency order, several online attendees did, such as Susan King of Stuart.

“If someone is in ill health or in a fragile state of health and they want to choose to wear a facemask, it is not my personal responsibility to have to be cautious of their health,” she wrote. They should remain home and have others shop for them, etc. Safety yes, but loss of freedom, no.”

Her comments were echoed by Zack Teller, who did not provide his home city but whose Facebook page shows links to a multitude of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

“I will not be wearing a mask, nor will I submit myself or my family to be contact-traced,” he said. “I will also be publicly celebrating the 4th of July in Downtown Stuart in remembrance of the freedoms we were born with. Double standards put forth from government and health officials who financially benefit from the crisis are not hidden from the public.”

Commissioner Stacey Hetherington, whose absence June 16 forced her fellow commissioners to postpone the discussion due to two failed tie votes that day, believes education and collaboration will be crucial to the success of the emergency order.

“There has to be a component of involving our community or businesses for participation, because if it’s mandatory, it requires participation and education,” she said. “It is absolutely vital that we have buy-in from all parts of our community.”

Commissioner Sarah Heard made the motion for approving the order, which subsequently passed unanimously.

“The evidence and statistics in Martin County on COVID-19 are unequivocal, overwhelming, and sobering,” she said. “It’s clear we are in the midst of a rapidly surging health crisis here in Martin County, which demands that we take transformative action.”

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