Don’t look to the city of Lakeland to quickly join neighboring jurisdictions like Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orange County in mandating that people wear masks in public in response to recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Mayor Bill Mutz isn’t closing the door on ever requiring masks, but says he has no immediate plans to ask the other city commissioner to consider mandating them.
Masks were discussed this morning at a meeting of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce’s Reopen Lakeland Task Force, and the consensus was to urge people to comply with mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing when going out in public but not issuing mandates, he said.
In jurisdictions like Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orange County that have a strong mayor form of government, the mayors are able to issue executive orders, and the mayors in all three have mandated masks in recent days.
With Lakeland’s manager-council form of city government, such a directive would need a majority vote of the City Commission.
In an interview with LkldNow this afternoon, Mutz mentioned that new COVID-19 cases in Polk County are rising even faster than the growing rate of testing, and he acknowledged that the city may need to move away from voluntary compliance to sterner action if numbers continue rising.
“It will be relatively short lived if the numbers keep rising,” he said.
For now, the city is reminding people about the importance of coronavirus safety through public service announcements. He said he plans to record a video on the topic later this afternoon.
The city released a mask reminder on social media Thursday:
This morning’s daily update from the Florida Department of Health brought sobering news for Polk County. It showed that 154 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed since Thursday’s report. That’s more than twice the previous one-day high of 68, which was reported on both Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Nearly half of Polk’s new cases reported today — 75 — involve Lakeland residents, according to the Department of Health.
In response to rising COVID-19 cases, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor ordered masks be worn in all indoor locations outside the home when people can’t maintain six-foot separations. The order takes effect for Tampa city limits at 5 p.m. today.
In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Wednesday required businesses to have their employees wear masks. In Orange County, Mayor Jerry Demings ordered people to wear masks outside the home except when exercising; the order takes effect Saturday. The order includes Orlando, that city’s mayor said.
Osceola County, which borders Polk on the east, has had a mask order in effect since mid-April.
Joy Jackson, the director of the Florida Department of Health raised alarms about Polk’s growing case load when she spoke to the Polk County Commission on Monday.
“I’m worried about the trends in cases in Polk County. I’m worried because we have a population that doesn’t have immunity to this disease,” she said. “COVID-19 is five to 20 times more fatal than influenza. This is not a pumped-up influenza.”
Her comments preceded a commission decision to spend $10 million of federal CARES Act funds to increase COVID-19 testing in Polk, targeting areas with vulnerable populations where testing has lagged.
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When the Reopen Lakeland Task Force met today, a key concern was difficulty in enforcing coronavirus safety measures, Mutz said. A lot of businesses have policies but don’t enforce them, he said.
A key reason for lack of enforcement is peer pressure in a community where personal freedom is highly valued, Mutz said.
He contrasted that with a different kind of peer pressure he witnessed during a recent trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, businesses have signs that ask patrons to wear masks, and those who enter without masks are asked to leave.
“Washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks are responsibilities that everybody can choose to observe,” Mutz said. “Compliance is about caring about other people and observing what you are asked to do” and realizing that wearing a mask might help protect somebody with a sick or elderly relative at home.
The Reopen Lakeland Task Force announced a Consumer Choices program on May 26. Local businesses that sign up can post a color-coded swan logo that shows their level of compliance with coronavirus safety measures.
So far, 37 businesses have signed up and their names are displayed online. Nineteen are at the most stringent level, called comprehensive precautions. Eleven are at the increased precautions level, and seven — including the Chamber of Commerce — are at the primary precautions level.
Participating businesses have been given digital files that they can print into a poster showing their level of compliance, according to Sarah Breed, chief operating officer of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. There are no plans to provide decals or physical posters, she said.
In addition to Mutz, LkldNow sent an email to the other city commissioners this morning asking if they plan to discuss a mask mandate in an upcoming commission meeting and whether they favor requiring masks.
So far, we’ve heard back from three commissioners other than Mutz, and Stephanie Madden is the only one who said she’d like to discuss masks at the next commission meeting.
Here is what we’ve heard from commissioners in the order their responses came in:
Commissioner Stephanie Madden:
I am in favor of adding masks to our discussions at our next meeting. I was talking to some folks yesterday about personal freedoms and personal responsibility and how policy makers have to balance both of those, which has been a unique challenge with a contagion. With regard to masks, my young friend said, “I don’t particularly like rules, but if restaurants and retail establishments can have signs that say ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service,’ I guess they could add masks to that list.”
I thought it was a wise remark and perspective from a 20 year old. I actually went home and told my husband I needed to buy more masks.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley:
I have been thinking about this as the surrounding cities have implemented their mask directives. The increase of Covid cases is certainly alarming. And it does seem like many of us have let our guard down with regard to taking measures to protect ourselves and others. I have not heard of any colleagues or staff requesting a special meeting, but with the upcoming scheduled meeting to discuss the City Manager position, there would be an opportunity to do so.
Personally, I wear a mask when entering stores but have not worn one when walking out of doors. In my own home, I am having to remind my family to wear theirs when they are out and about. As far as supporting a mask mandate here locally I am on the fence. Whereas I ascribe to wearing one, many people have seen this as a political issue and one of infringement on their rights. And they have voiced those opinions. To me, if a business can say no shoes, no shirts = no service, the same sentiment can be applied to masks.
Commissioner Chad McLeod:
I prefer our current approach of strongly encouraging people to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible but ultimately letting people, businesses and organizations in Lakeland to decide for themselves.
Commissioner Phillip Walker:
In a phone conversation, Walker said the city is doing a good job on social media encouraging people to wear masks in public and noted that visitors to City Hall are required to wear masks.
“Maybe it’s something we could discuss and encourage people to have a mask on when you’re in public,” he said.
Walker said his own personal practice has been to mask up when entering businesses but not when walking around his neighborhood. Indeed, Walker was one of the only elected officials who wore a mask while attending last week’s prayer rally in Munn Park.
As of 5 p.m., LkldNow had not received responses from Commissioners Bill Read and Scott Franklin. Franklin is running for higher office, seeking to unseat fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano.
The next general meeting of the City Commission is scheduled for July 6 at City Hall. However, commissioners have scheduled a “special called” meeting to be held virtually next Wednesday to select an executive search firm to help recruit the next city manager.