Get Ready for Lakeland’s Mask Regulations to End

The city of Lakeland is not planning to renew its face mask regulations after they expire next Tuesday, according to Mayor Bill Mutz. The rules, first approved by the City Commission in early July as local COVID-19 cases were rapidly rising and extended every month since then, will not be reconsidered in order to align with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order expanding re-opening of Florida businesses, he said.

The governor’s order does not prevent local governments from requiring the use of masks, but it does forbid them from charging fines for violations. While Lakeland’s mask resolution included a potential fine of up to $250, city officials said no fines were ever imposed.

Instead, the city has relied on social pressure for compliance with the rule requiring masks inside buildings (other than the home) when distancing of six feet isn’t possible.

It will now be up to businesses to decide whether they will require masks or other coronavirus precautions, Mutz said. “Shifting to the business to define their own precaution levels becomes the ultimate decision making environment for the customer,” he said.

To help customers make those decisions, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce’s Reopen Lakeland Task Force established a “Consumer Choices” program last spring that encourages businesses to post color-coded entrance signs indicating their level of coronavirus precautions.

So far, 47 businesses are listed as participants on the Reopen Lakeland website. Just over half say they use “comprehensive precautions,” the highest level.

A larger list of businesses requiring masks of customers and employees is being maintained by the Lakeland Business – Operation Face Mask Facebook group.

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With the mask resolution in Lakeland set to expire next week, we want to remind everyone that the #ReopenLakeland Taskforce’s “Consumer Choices” program is still active. The Taskforce designed Consumer Choices to be an easy to read Chart & Color Scheme, which identifies three different levels of safety choices any given business has chosen to use. This chart makes it possible for customers to know the business’ precaution level before they arrive. Three different precaution levels exist (Green, Blue & Magenta) which follow healthcare guidelines. Green represents “Primary Precautions,” Blue represents “Increased Precautions,” and Magenta represents “Comprehensive Precautions.” To learn more, visit the Reopen Lakeland Taskforce portal at: https://www.lakelandchamber.com/reopenlakeland/

A post shared by Lakeland Chamber of Commerce (@lakelandchamber) on

The governor’s removal of a city’s ability to level fines for mask violations “effectively removed the ability of local government to regulate a mandate that many will not follow,” Mutz said. “We will encourage use, but if cannot enforce it, there’s no reason to mandate it.”

Mutz said that at the City Commission’s 3 p.m. meeting on Monday at the RP Funding Center’s Youkey Theater, he will read aloud a letter from health leaders discussing the importance of wearing face masks to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The letter is being produced jointly by Danielle Drummond, COO of Lakeland Regional Health, and Dr. Steven G. Achinger, managing partner of Watson Clinic, he said.

When commissioners extended the mask rules in a 4-3 vote earlier this month, they began discussing the conditions that would convince them to end it. Mutz and Commissioner Sara McCarley Roberts said they would be satisfied when Polk County experienced two weeks when 5% or less of COVID-19 tests came back positive.

Polk’s positivity rate has varied between 4.33% and 8.19% for the last 14 days, with five of those days under 5%. Polk’s latest positivity report, posted this morning:

Source: Florida Department of Health

Joy Jackson, director of the Polk County office of the Florida Department of Health told commissioners in early September that she believes the mask regulations have been a key factor in reducing the rate of new COVID-19 cases in Lakeland and Polk.

Public comments about the mask regulations have been sharply divided at recent commission meetings.

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.

Gov. DeSantis last week issued an executive order that instituted Phase 3 of Florida’s re-opening plan, rolling back most previous coronavirus restrictions.

Among other provisions, restaurants and bars are allowed to reopen at 100% capacity. Cities can restrict them to 50% or more but would have to justify any restrictions.

Many downtown Lakeland restaurants and bars reopened at full capacity this past weekend, The Ledger reported.

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