The Pinellas County Commission will vote on May 11 whether to rescind or amend its now 10-month-old mask mandate that was enacted to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The commission unanimously agreed on Tuesday to schedule the vote, a necessary logistical step to make the required public notice. But officials also discussed their ability to make any approved changes that go into effect at a later date, like early June as proposed by Commissioner Pat Gerard.
About 37 percent of the population in Pinellas County had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday. Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas, said he expects 50 percent of the county to have completed vaccinations by May 25, a sign towards herd immunity.
The Commission is evaluating its mask mandate amid strong pressure from anti-mask advocates, who spent two hours speaking against the ordinance during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s discussion.
“I think people just want an end date; they’ve been asking for an end date,” Commissioner Kathleen Peters said. “I think if we give them a date of May 11, that we’re going to put it on the agenda to be serious about talking about it, then that helps get them to where they want to be.”
The elected officials reviewed a report from University of South Florida scientists Edwin Michael and Ken Newcomb that stated social measures like masks “are highly effective in protecting against infection.” While they prevent transmission, masks also slow the development of herd immunity, and lifting the measure would result in the pandemic’s resurgence.
The scientists predicted that accelerating vaccination rates by five times will allow for a full release of social measures by July 1.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we err on the side of caution,” Commissioner Janet Long said.
The mandate, enacted June 23, requires masks in most indoor public places, including in restaurants while not eating or drinking.
But Gerard also pointed to some of the data shared Tuesday to justify beginning to look for an end date for the mandate.
Of the 18 counties statewide with a countywide mask ordinance, the six with comparable populations to Pinellas had fluctuating seven-day positivity averages since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a report provided by county administrator Barry Burton.
Counties with a mask ordinance showed a spike in cases in June and July of 2020, followed by a steady decline, then another spike in December and January followed by another decline, according to Burton’s data. Counties with no mask requirement followed a similar pattern.
Commissioner Karen Seel noted that those numbers did not indicate how many residents in counties without a mask mandate were wearing face coverings anyway, therefore skewing the data.
The Florida Department of Health and Centers for Disease and Prevention showed coronavirus cases were higher in school districts that did not require masks, a more reliable figure, Seel said.
In February, 18 medical professionals from Tampa Bay hospitals, health centers and university programs provided a joint letter of advice urging local governments maintain the mask requirements until Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties hit a seven-day average positivity rate of 3 percent or less for four consecutive weeks.
On Tuesday, Pinellas had a 6.8 percent seven-day average, compared to 4.5 percent last month, according to Choe.
While Hillsborough county still has its mask requirement in place, Pasco County administrator Dan Biles ended that government’s mask mandate on April 5. Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Mike Grego said Tuesday the district’s mask requirement will remain, despite loud opposition because his medical advisors have recommended continuing the health safety protocol.
“We did not vote you in to manage our health or dictate what we do with our bodies and what we put on our bodies or what we put in our bodies,” Yvette Gaugh, president of Welllife Health told the Commission Tuesday. “I am appalled .... that you’re telling me to put a face covering over my face to protect my health.”
But Commissioner Rene Flowers reminded her colleagues that for all of the loud comments they heard Tuesday — many she said were factually inaccurate and distasteful — there were thousands of other residents who supported the safeguard.