Lakeland’s mask mandate was extended for a third month today as city commissioners began discussing which future “goal post” would convince them it’s time to end the face-covering requirement.
“We are close; we’re not there. A couple of weeks of under 5% (positivity for new COVID-19 tests) puts us there and that is a goal post,” Mayor Bill Mutz said. “It’s a measurement, and it’s numeric, and it’s something that’s readable and it’s something that has prudence attached to it.”
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, which imposed mask mandates before Lakeland did, have seen positivity rates between 4% and 5% now, he noted.
The five-member commission majority that approved mask resolutions in July and August showed signs of cracking today. Commissioner Chad McLeod, who voted for the mask requirement the last two times, changed his mind and voted against it today, saying he doesn’t want to impose “the long arm of government … any longer than absolutely necessary.”
Voting for the face-covering resolution: Mayor Mutz and Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Sara Roberts McCarley and Philip Walker. Voting against: Commissioners Scott Franklin, McLeod and Bill Read.
It was comments from McLeod and fellow opponent Scott Franklin that kicked off the “goal post” discussion. “I’m curious, because the public deserves to know: If this were to be extended today, what is our goal post because it does feel like we’re continuing to move it … What will it take for us to not extend it?” Franklin asked.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said she agrees with Mutz about the 5% positivity standard and said she watches the daily numbers to see if Lakeland and Polk have reached it.
The resolution approved today is identical to the ones passed in July and August except that it changes the “sunset date” to Oct. 5. Commissioners meet on that date and can vote to end or extend the mandate.
The measure makes face covers mandatory in indoor spaces within Lakeland city limits (other than residences) where people aren’t able to maintain 6-foot distance. It includes a dozen exceptions, including people with health conditions that preclude wearing a mask and children under 8.
As they did the last two times the mask measure came to a vote, commissioners got updates from health professionals about the trajectory of the virus in Polk County.
Joy Jackson, director of the Polk County office of the Florida Department of Health told them she believes the previous mask regulations have been a key factor in reducing the rate of new COVID-19 cases in Lakeland and Polk. Despite a “very nice downward slope,” there was a slight uptick in cases last week: 900 new cases in Polk compared with 641 the week before and 345 new cases in Lakeland compared with 243 the week before
“Definitely the numbers are improved both in Florida and in Polk, but I am concerned about this past week. We need to stay the course,” she told commissioners.
Michael Spake, a senior vice president at Lakeland Regional Health, also urged commissioners to extend the mask advisory, as he called it. He raised concerns that Labor Day gatherings could lead to an uptick in new cases, and he noted that the hospital today opened a pediatric COVID-19 testing site in response to cases reported at 41 Polk County schools.
Commissioners heard from 24 members of the public before voting. Ten favored extending the mask order, and 14 urged them to end it.
The most prevalent arguments given for maintaining face coverings was that the order has proven effective in reducing the number of cases and that masks protect public health.
The most prevalent arguments given for ending the mandate were feelings that government is overreaching its authority and doubts about the medical reasons given for wearing masks.
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