Starting at 5 p.m. today, masks will be mandatory in indoor spaces within Lakeland city limits (other than residences) where people aren’t able to maintain 6-foot distance. That’s the result of a 5-2 Lakeland City Commission vote.

The mandate lasts 30 days and will need another commission vote to be extended. There are 12 exceptions, including children under 8, people eating or drinking, and people with health conditions that preclude facial coverings.

Voting for the face-covering resolution: Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Sara Roberts McCarley, Chad McLeod and Philip Walker. Voting against: Scott Franklin and Bill Read.)

With today’s vote, Lakeland joins 17 counties and 52 cities in Florida with mask orders, including “most of the major areas around us,” Mutz said.

Today’s special commission meeting was a stark contrast to a meeting held on the same issue 10 days ago. Mutz had called the meeting two days earlier after Polk County’s number of new coronavirus cases had just started its current surge.

No vote was taken that day because commissioners remained silent when Mutz entertained a motion to support a mask order.

What changed since then? Commissioners said today they hadn’t had enough time to vet the issue sufficiently and they praised two changes that the city legal staff made in the order they drafted: limiting the mandate to 30 days and raising the minimum age from 2 to 8.

At the start of today’s meeting, commissioners heard from Dr. Joy Jackson (upper right), director of the Polk County Health Department

The key clause in the resolution says:

Every person working, living, visiting, or doing business in the City of Lakeland shall wear a face covering consistent with CDC guidelines in any indoor location, other than their home or residence, when not maintaining social distancing from other persons, excluding family members or companions

Exceptions include:

  • Children under age eight
  • People observing social distancing under CDC guidelines
  • People for whom a face covering would cause impairment due to an existing health condition
  • People working in a business or a profession who do not have interactions with others
  • Those who work in a business or profession who maintain social distancing from other people
  • People working in a business or profession where use of a face covering would prevent them from performing their duties
  • People who are exercising while maintaining social distancing
  • People who are eating or drinking
  • Children under age eighteen years old while participating in youth sports
  • Public safety, fire, and other life-safety and health-care personnel; their protective equipment requirements will be governed by their respective agencies
  • People communicating with someone who is hearing impaired where the wearing of a face covering would impede communication, provided that social distancing is observed as much as possible
  • People for whom the requirement to wear a face-covering would cause a conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act

Scroll to the end of this article to read the full resolution and view video of today’s meeting.

Enforcement

Violation of the mask order carries the potential of a $250 fine, but Mutz said the city will default to educating offenders and offering a mask.

The city’s goal, he said, is that when you walk into a business, you see the vast majority of people wearing masks. Mutz continued:

“When we have somebody who says, ‘But you can’t make me wear a mask,’ then the store owner has the ability to say, ‘Well, then you have to leave, please.’ If that person objects to the leaving, then they have the ability to call LPD. LPD will come and help them in an education process — our goal is to educate that masks are the decision of our city as a means of slowing the spread of COVID — and here’s a mask. You can put it on. If the person doesn’t want to do that … then that person has to contend with a warning. Our goal is not to get to the $250 fine, but if someone wants to be obstinate and create an issue and they want to give themselves the $250 fine, then they can.”

Surging cases affecting hospitals

Today’s meeting opened with an update from Dr. Joy Jackson, head of the Polk County Health Department.

She pointed out that 40% of the 4,000-plus people with known cases of COVID-19 in Polk County contracted it in the last week. In Lakeland, one-third of the 1,300-plus cases were reported in the last week.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing impacts on our hospitals. We’re definitely seeing upticks in cases of COVID going to the hospital … I am fearful if we continue to have the uptick that we’re having that we will abut the ability of our hospitals to manage,” she said.

As of this morning, Lakeland Regional Health had 92 patients with COVID-19, she said. Thirty-seven were in the intensive care unit, and 14 were on ventilators, and those numbers are on the rise, she said.

She estimated that 5% of Polk’s population has had been infected with the coronavirus, even though testing has uncovered cases in less than 1% of the population.

“That means 95% have not. And if we don’t flatten the curve with the upward trajectory we will very soon surpass the ability of our heath-care system to support it.”

Precautions

Thirty-five to 40 percent of people with COVID show no symptoms but can unknowingly spread it, Jackson said, so she recommends:

  • “Anytime you’re around people you don’t live with, then you be very cautious and wear masks, if you’re inside or outside.”
  • “If you’re going to go to a small gathering, outside is better than inside, fewer people is better than more people, being farther apart is better than being closer together; avoid handshakes, hugs or any close personal interactions.”
  • People over 65 or with health vulnerabilities should not attend gatherings outside the home.

Will Polk County follow?

Jackson said she’s giving a coronavirus update to the Polk County Commission on Monday and that commissioners have been respectful and receptive to information she’s provided.

So far, county commissioners have expressed skepticism about mandating masks, but Mutz said he hopes today’s vote in Lakeland encourages them. “I’m encouraging the county to align likewise.”

Commissioner comments

Commissioner Stephanie Madden pointed out that she is usually the first to stand up for personal freedoms, such as when she lost a 6-1 vote to close city paths and parks as the coronavirus crisis started. But she used a Pearl Harbor analogy about somebody sighting an enemy submarine but taking no action.

“We’re getting signals that there’s a submarine in our harbor today. Thank God there were carriers that weren’t in that harbor that day (in 1941) so that we could continue the war and fight and win. So if we use masks and we adopt it in a widespread way — it’s not a panacea — but if it helps protect people from dying in Lakeland, Florida, if it helps our citizenry take it a little more seriously to know that we are having real community spread right now, then I will be voting yes today.”

Commissioner Scott Franklin said the mask issue is the most divisive in his three years on the commission, and he used his own World War II analogy in arguing to preserve individual freedoms.

Noting there were Japanese spies in Pearl Harbor, he said, “We were very quick after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to round up Japanese-American citizens all over the county and throw them into internment camps. And I think it’s a shameful episode in our country’s history and we have a long, unfortunate history as Americans that our worst behavior has come along when we trample the very freedoms that our country was founded on.”

Commissioner Phillip Walker said he has been influenced by some senior pastors who he called prayer partners and said they were concerned about vulnerable people.

“Let’s see how the 30-day period goes. I hope we see some change. I don’t want to see the death rate spike. I’m concerned about the most affected communities, the vulnerable, the seniors, the most neglected communities.”

Commissioner Bill Read said his main concern is that a mask mandate will give people a false sense of security and they may drop their guard on other coronavirus protections.

Commissioner Sara McCarley noted that three months of home-schooling and staying at home has made people tired. “But we’re going to be more tired if we don’t do something about it now and look out in the next 30 days and hope to see some changes in the numbers and a flattening of the curve. If we have to continue to do this into the fall, we’ve never seen a tired like that.”

Commissioner Chad McLeod said shifting advice as COVID has progressed has “made this a harder debate” and that he appreciates grassroots efforts around Lakeland to encourage mask wearing. Even though he has “concerns about government overreach,” he said, “I don’t want to look back in August or September and think we maybe could have done more.”

Mayor Bill Mutz called the mask order pro-business, saying it will help Lakeland merchants win back shoppers who are driving to Hillsborough because the mask order passed there makes them feel safer.

“This is pro-business, pro-health care pro-first responders decision, and it may feel impeding — I don’t like wearing a mask either; I don’t like my glasses fogging up — but it’s not about me, it’s about other people … It’s our responsibility to move into those actions we can take that have the most nationally predictive and attainable results that already show. Even our president said yesterday that he was going to start to wear a mask so that was a big change for him.”

Public comments

Before commissioners voted, they took telephone comments from about 30 people who spoke on both sides of the issue.

Many of the people who supported the mask order compared it to other safety measures encoded into law, such as wearing seatbelts or not texting while driving. Several noted that the masks are worn primarily to protect others in case the wearer has been infected but doesn’t know it.

The major theme of those opposing the order want the government to refrain from infringing personal liberties. Many also questioned the effectiveness of masks in protecting the wearer or those nearby.

The resolution approved today:

City Commission Meeting from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.


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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com 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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