For now, there is no mandate to wear masks in public places in Lakeland. After hearing the leaders of the city’s two largest health organizations say requiring face masks would help them preserve lives in Lakeland by preventing the spread of COVID-19, city commissioners today declined to take a vote on the issue.

Mayor Bill Mutz said he was “extremely disappointed” that none of the other six city commissioners would make a motion to approve a mask measure that was drafted at his request.

“We focused today on everything but lives. I think we focused on every issue we could bring up as a reason not to instead of the reasons to,” he said near the end of today’s three-hour-plus meeting.

He continued: “And I believe we’ll be accountable for that. The numbers will play the music. We will see the results. And we will be responsible for not worrying about what matters most.”

Mutz said he believes the commission will be forced to consider a mask ordinance again as the numbers of people infected with the disease locally continues rising.

After commissioners made it clear they would take no action, they heard comments from several dozen members of the public. On one side, callers praised the commission for preserving their freedom to choose. On the other side, callers expressed disappointment that the commission did not follow medical leaders’ advice to act for the good of the collective community.

As commissioners met this morning, the Florida Department of Health issued an update showing that Polk County set a new one-day high for new COVID-19 cases for the seventh time in the last 13 days.

New cases of COVID-19 reported in Polk County reached 183 today. Three more people were hospitalized. There were no new deaths from the disease for a second day in a row.

As we do every day, LkldNow has updated this and three other info graphics showing local data on our COVID-19 page.

The overall rate of tests with positive results has increased from 4.9% to 5.9% in the last five days, according to the Department of Health. A private dashboard that looks at the number of people tested instead of total tests administered puts the change in positivity over the same period at 8.7% to 11.5%.

News broke this afternoon that Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees is urging all Floridians to wear masks in public.

“All individuals in Florida should wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible,’’ Rivkees wrote. His advisory also urges avoiding crowds of 50 or larger.

At the start of today’s meeting, commissioners were urged to require masks in public places by Danielle Drummond, designated as the next CEO of Lakeland Regional Health, and Dr. Steven Achinger, managing partner of Watson Clinic.

At Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, medical ICU beds are near capacity, mostly with COVID-19 patients, and use of ventilators has risen recently with some of the patients using them in their 30s and 40s, Drummond said.

“We’ve been through a lot as a society and a community, and we want to do whatever we can to get back to normal,” she said. “With the use of masks, we will be able to maintain a lot of the things that recently reopened.”

Achinger also spoke of the economic benefits of getting people to wear masks in public.

“Masks are probably the least expensive mitigation measure that this commission could possibly be considering. We all understand the expense of the shutdown and the amount of pain that it inflicts on the community, and we want to avoid that,” he said.

Mutz echoed him, saying that widespread use of masks will convince many residents who are currently avoiding shopping to begin patronizing local businesses again. He also said a municipal order would benefit business owners because it would allow them to ask customers to wear masks without worrying about losing business to more-lenient competitors.

City commissioners listen to comments about masks at today’s meeting. Also shown are Assistant City Attorney Ramona Sirianni and City Clerk Kelly Koos. Commissioner Bill Read joined by telephone and was not on video.

Commissioner Scott Franklin was most adamant in his opposition to the proposed order. He questioned how it would be enforced and the effectiveness of homemade masks he sees people wearing. He cited a poll of Bridge Local members that he said showed 2-to-1 opposition, and he said emails he has received were “overwhelmingly not in favor.”

“It’s not being called for by the public. I’m firmly against it,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Read said that he has had far more calls from opponents to mandatory masks and at the end of the meeting said, “I’m confident we made the right decision.”

Commissioner Phillip Walker raised questions about enforcement and whether the city should approve a mask order if one isn’t being passed for unincorporated Polk by the County Commission.

Commissioner Chad McLeod, a public relations professional, called for “an aggressive public health messaging campaign,” saying members of the public are confused by contrary messages they’ve heard as the disease has progressed. He also said, “People are asking if we mandate this today, what will we mandate tomorrow.”

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley expressed mixed feelings. She agreed with McLeod that more public education is needed and had questions about whether store clerks would be asked to enforce a mask order. Speaking about choice, she said some people have said they won’t patronize businesses that require masks, while some businesses such as Costco have exercised their choice of requiring masks.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden, saying she wanted city government to avoid looking “like the boy who cried wolf,” looked to both health care leaders for confirmation that rising COVID-19 numbers makes Lakeland’s situation similar to being in the cone of an approaching hurricane.

She said she heard “a sense of urgency” from both health care leaders who spoke, but sensed that a majority of the commission opposed making masks mandatory.

After the meeting, McCarley said it was clear to her, too, that there were insufficient votes for the mask order to pass.

Lakeland’s draft order largely mirrors an emergency order put into effect in Tampa on Friday by Mayor Jane Castor. It would require masks in indoor public places where people are unable to remain socially distanced and includes exclusions similar to the Tampa order.

In the wake of last week’s mandatory mask orders in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando/Orange County, Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group today voted 5-3 to mandate masks in unincorporated portions of Hillsborough.

Here is the draft order that did not receive a vote today but can be reconsidered at a future meeting:

The commission discussion and public comment lasted more than three hours. Watch it here:

City Commission Meeting from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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1 Comment

  1. Hard to believe they are willing to put more people at risk. Whatever happened to safety first? Perhaps the commissioners missed that day in grade school.

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