The Palm Beach County Commission unanimously approved a mandate Tuesday, June 23 to require social distancing and mask wearing on the strong recommendation of health officials, notwithstanding the many vocal mask protesters who attended the meeting.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County, said that the state has experienced a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, which included 4,700 new cases on June 20 and 2,800 new cases on June 21.
“We don’t want this peak to keep going up,” Alonso said. “We need to take action in order to bring this curve back down. All our indicators indicate a rise in the numbers.”
The total number of cases in Florida is more than 100,000, and Palm Beach County has risen above 10,000 with 468 deaths, she said.
“We’re seeing this burden of positive cases on the younger population,” Alonso said. “The seniors and those at higher risk are remaining indoors and not getting exposed, however the younger, more active and less cautious are going out and getting infected at these alarming numbers.”
She said despite younger adults’ increased resiliency, many wind up occupying hospital intensive care units and some are dying. She added that the curve of new cases went up rapidly when Palm Beach County went into its Phase 1 re-opening last month.
“I am hopeful that we are at the point now where we can intervene,” Alonso said. “We can put enforcement in order to follow the governor’s orders — making sure that the businesses are doing what they are supposed to be doing… so that we don’t see this peak continuing to rise and more lives lost.”
Alonso said that wearing facial masks would help stop the spread of the virus and recommended making it mandatory, which precipitated an outburst from some members of the public attending to protest a mask mandate. Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner asked for order in the proceedings or he would recess the meeting and clear the chamber.
Alonso pointed out that Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties are still under the governor’s Phase 1 rules, and there are still partial closings due to a higher risk.
She added that a mask and social distancing mandate was not intended to hurt anyone. “This is about the public,” Alonso said. “I wear my mask to protect you, you wear your mask to protect me. The only enemy we have is the virus.”
Kerner asked County Administrator Verdenia Baker how a mask mandate would be enforced, and Baker said she has talked to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who said if it became law, he would enforce it.
“If necessary, enforcement will be done, but our job is to educate,” Baker said.
Most public comments were against mask wearing and social distancing, with arguments that included infringement of constitutional rights and the board overstepping its bounds. The meeting was interrupted by frequent outbursts from residents opposed to wearing masks.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said she had received 159 total calls on the topic of masks with 143 in favor, and 1,205 e-mails with 1,016 in favor, at which point she was interrupted again by protesters.
“I’m sorry. I’m really tired of these interruptions. You’ve been given enough warning. I think we were very polite in listening to comments, and the same respect should be reciprocal,” McKinlay said.
She thanked the governmental bodies for requiring that her teenagers wear a seat belt in a car, explaining that a mask mandate is another safety-related measure, albeit a temporary one.
“I’d like to thank them for requiring me to put my infants in infant carriers when they were under the age of 12 months,” McKinlay continued. “I’d like to thank them for requiring me to put them in booster seats until they were five years old. I want to thank them that my kids couldn’t buy alcohol until they were 21. I want to thank them that they can’t buy cigarettes or vaping devices until they’re 21. I want to thank them for speed limits. All of those measures were put in place to keep me safe.”
Commissioner Gregg Weiss made a motion to implement an emergency order to require social distancing and mask wearing, with enforcement limited to civil citations, which was amended to include a sunset of four months. The motion carried unanimously, 7-0.
To learn more about the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.pbcgov.com/coronavirus.