INDIAN RIVER COUNTY - In what has become a regular feature of local government meetings, Indian River County commissioners on Nov. 17 again debated the wisdom of mask mandates.

On July 14, the commissioners enacted the first two-month emergency mask ordinance, requiring all employees of restaurants, grocery stores, food service, salons, gyms, retail establishments, or businesses open to the public, or any indoor facility visited by the public, to wear face coverings. The ordinance also required people entering an indoor county facility or using public transit to wear masks.

On Sept. 15, that ordinance was extended until Nov. 17.

Although the ordinance emphasized voluntary compliance, it did include the ability to issue citations. That option was eliminated due to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Sept. 25 executive order suspending fines and penalties.

Commissioner Peter O'Bryan repeated his previous call to institute a six-month ordinance instead of a two-month ordinance.

“I don’t think anyone here wants to go back into a lockdown mode,” Comm. O’Bryan said. “But the only way we can avoid doing that is that we continue to emphasize that face coverings need to be worn, and we need to be keeping our distance from other folks. If we do those two things, I think we can somewhat control the spread of the virus and reduce the number of cases and not have to start looking at lockdowns. So my position on this will be that we do vote to extend the ordinance. I’d love to go longer than two months.”

Comm. O’Bryan wanted more teeth to the ordinance. He understood that the governor said they can’t collect fines from individuals, but he felt they should impose fines on businesses that don’t require employees to wear masks.

As has been the case in the past, most of the pro-mask residents submitted their comments electronically, while the anti-mask people appeared in chambers to argue their case.

Many of the mask opponents referenced the governor’s order suspending penalties and fines.

“Your order doesn’t matter because there’s no penalty to it,” Chris Allen said. “Whether you renew it or not, I don’t have to wear one, because there’s nothing you can do.”

MaryAnne Bender lamented the division between conservatives and republicans, generally on the anti-mask side, and liberals and democrats on the pro-mask side.

“I am conservative, I am pro mask, this makes me unpopular in my social circle,” Ms. Bender told Hometown News. “But I think we need to stand together and mask up for the health and economy of our community.”

In her comments to the commissioners, Ms. Bender said that a mask mandate could be the only way to prevent a shut down and save the economy.

“Seeing our COVID numbers rise over the last weeks worries me,” Ms. Bender said. “Of course our health as a community but also our local economy. We need local businesses to stay open, we need to be out shopping and supporting our community, we need to be wearing a mask! Practicing social distancing, hand sanitizing and most importantly wearing a mask everywhere we go. We need our local government to take the lead and pass this mandate.”

Nicole Camponeli said that the pandemic was a myth, a way for the government to exert control.

“I cannot believe some people have been walking around in this county hiding half their face for 126 days now,” Ms. Camponeli said. “If there was really a pandemic, don’t you think we’d have bodies dropping dead in the streets? I don’t see that. ... It’s about compliance and control from government and you should be ashamed that you are the people who are enacting this tyranny.”

Kathy Brayton, a county resident since 1965, challenged the idea that mask mandates infringe on constitutional rights.

“A judge in Palm Beach strongly disagreed,” Ms. Brayton said. “He ruled that constitutional rights do not absolve a citizen from the consequences of their individual choices, saying the constitution does not allow citizens to shirk their social obligation to their fellow Americans or to society. He continued by saying that this is particularly true when one's individual choices can result in drastic, costly and sometimes deadly consequences to others,” and closed by saying there is no constitutional or protected right to infect others."

Jennifer Pippin challenged the science regarding both masks and vaccines.

“It’s not going to stop with the vaccine and I’ll tell you why: there’s a flu vaccine and it doesn’t work for everybody,” Ms. Pippin said. “People still pass away from the flu. The vaccine didn’t stop it.”

“Over 700 students have been quarantined in the school district,” Ms. Pippin continued. “They are masked at school. If masks work, why are we quarantining healthy students?”

Kristy Polackwich also lamented inaccurate information, but she saw it on the other side.

“I'd like to say I understand your hesitation on mask mandates, but I do not,” Ms. Polackwich said. “What is stopping you? Is it your chance of reelection, a small group of very loud protestors with very inaccurate information, fear your local political party will turn on you? Many of you champion local government, yet you are failing to rise to the occasion. ... My family and I will continue to wear masks and avoid all local businesses refusing to require masks.”

Diana Spencer challenged the commissioners to stand up for science and local workers.

“Masks are no less important during COVID than seat belts, which are governed by law,” Ms. Spencer said. “What is the downside of saving lives and respecting our local healthcare workers? Who among you is more afraid of losing the support of those who can’t differentiate between science and politics, than of losing lives and livelihoods that could have been saved if you had done the right thing?”

Valerie Brant-Wilson, a retired teacher, also emphasized the science.

“The data verifies that wearing a mask mitigates the spread of the virus,” Ms. Brant-Wilson said. “If we want to be able to control the virus, all Americans must do their part. That means wear your mask, people.”

Following the public debate, the commissioners voted 4-1 to extend the mandate, with no penalties for those who do not comply. Only Chairman Joe Flescher voted no, due to the lack of an enforcement mechanism.

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