The County Commission majority approved an ordinance backed by civil fines without a specific sunset

STUART – Facing the same room full of angry protestors hurling the same veiled threats they’ve faced for the last several weeks, the majority of the Martin County Commission approved an ordinance Aug. 25 renewing the mandatory mask order that expired on Aug. 8.

In contrast to the previous emergency ordinance, the new mask mandate is enforced only by civil penalties and has no automatic sunset, but rather must be revoked or allowed to expire with the county’s Declaration of Emergency. Three days after the prior ordinance expired, commissioners faced an impromptu discussion during their regular meeting from members of the public insisting they drop the face covering idea once and for all. They ultimately voted 4-1 that evening with Commissioner Stacey Hetherington dissenting to advertise the most recent discussion. Only a couple of public speakers spoke out in favor of the new mask ordinance during the latest meeting, including retired nurse Robert Hess, who blasted the Board for not being more proactive.

“I have to tell you that your inaction worked because you were not ready to extend the emergency ordinance when it lapsed and you had not published advanced notice of a possible new ordinance that might have been enacted in the last meeting,” he said. “Young dudes are running around stores such as Publix without masks possibly infecting and killing seniors in Martin County. The deaths of these voters may not be inflating the stats you’re following but will surely affect the families who vote because their deaths matter to somebody.”

Dr. Tiffany Weakley, the president of the Cleveland Clinic Martin medical staff, was the only pro-mask speaker that day. She said her group truly believed the now-expired emergency mask order contributed to the drop in positive COVID-19 cases reported during the prior month and read from a letter she’d emailed to all the commissioners.

“We were disappointed to see it expire without any plan to address the gap in time,” she said. “We respectfully ask you to bring back the face covering requirement as set forth previously. To be clear, a recommendation to wear a face covering by this governing body is not a clear-enough endorsement and not a viable option. You as commissioners are elected to protect the health of all citizens in your jurisdiction during a pandemic just as physicians and healthcare workers are expected to care for all citizens who come through our doors.”

As in previous meetings, some of the speakers opposed to renewing the mask ordinance urged the Board to stop taking advice from the medical profession or to seek out other physicians with contrasting opinions. Such was the case of Stuart resident Erin Tackett.

“It’s interesting to me that some of the doctors listed on that letter – those are my doctors – and I don’t wear a mask in their rooms, so something’s not right here,” she said. “I’m actually going to make a phone call to one of those doctors after this because I find it complete and utter lies, and it’s just fearmongering.”

Stuart realtor Mona Leonard has consistently accused the medical profession in general and the Centers for Disease Control of inflating the coronavirus positivity numbers and ignoring the co-morbidity in some deaths.

“I remember several of you saying, well, let’s see what the next two weeks bring,” she said. “And you know what it’s brought: The numbers are down. So, if you don’t talk about that, then you’re doing the same thing you’ve been doing since the beginning – raising the bar. You’ve got to stop killing your communities. We have huge unemployment, rents and mortgages [that] cannot be paid; closed businesses [and] destroyed lives, over a seasonal flue.”

Lance Marler insisted the coronavirus curve had already been flattened and the positivity rate still remained below the threshold put forth by the Commission two weeks prior.

“While some choose to live in fear, others want to wear masks to protect themselves and others,” he said. “That is their right, and I will never oppose somebody protecting themselves. That’s exactly why I carry a sidearm. Others like myself like to use safe practices so we aren’t forced to hide behind a false sense of security My own immune system is what I rely on every day for my protection.”

As Marcia Carscadden approached the podium, she told commissioners she wasn’t angry at anyone but worried more about the fearful spirit pervading the county.

“I hear a lot of speakers speaking to you like they’re angry, but I’m here to tell you that as a Christ follower, I trust God,” she said. “When I’m out and I see the masks, it makes me almost weep because I see all the fear that is in the world [and] in this community. I think mandating the masks are going to keep this county in that fear. I see on our money – it says trust God – so where is that trust?”

Laverne Williams simply asked the Board to make its best decision based upon research since she didn’t have the tools to do so herself.

“Sitting here is so frustrating because you have one side that says masks are not necessary, this is not affecting our community [and] we can go about our business as if they’re nothing wrong,” she lamented. “And you have another side that says we have to wear the masks because it’s going to protect us. So, I’m just asking the commissioners to look at your hearts and make it easy for people like me that don’t have access to the truth. Is this serious, or is it not? Should I wear a mask or should I not?”

Commissioner Sarah Heard then recounted the local and statewide COVID-19 statistics, insisting that Martin County’s infections and hospitalizations from the virus had spiked since the previous emergency mask ordinance lapsed.

“Those are very, very serious and unencouraging statistics,” she said as loud murmurings in opposition could be heard in the back of the Chambers. “Our school re-openings have been disappointing… and mask supporters are overwhelmingly in the majority in Martin County. They are not represented here today because they’re practicing protection for themselves and others, because they’re aware that they’re going to be in a building where people are not masked, and they don’t feel safe.”

Commissioner Heard then made a motion to renew the mask ordinance, which was seconded by Commissioner Ed Ciampi without comment. Speaking via Zoom, Commissioner Harold Jenkins said he personally believed in wearing masks but felt the latest data didn’t support another mandate.

“We went to great efforts to create a dashboard with the most relevant information, which is hospitalizations,” he said. “That is stable, and I believe it’s going down. We told the people if we get it under control… that we would not do a mandatory mask ordinance.”

Commissioner Hetherington agreed.

“Since we weren’t able to come up with a benchmark, I pulled up guidance from the CDC website,” she said. “That says these strategies should be tailored to the needs of each community. Even the CDC guidance says there’s not a broad-brush approach.”

Commissioners subsequently voted 3-2, with Commissioners Hetherington and Jenkins dissenting and Commissioner Doug Smith voting in favor without comment.

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