At his first meeting as interim city commissioner, Don Selvage today declared that local elected officials have not done enough on coronavirus and urged his fellow commissioners to join President-elect Joe Biden in a 100-day challenge to encourage residents to wear masks and get vaccines as they become available.
Selvage stopped short of asking for a mask mandate, acknowledging that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order prohibiting local governments from enforcing masking makes such a measure a non-starter.
“I will not back off the point that as elected officials, we have a duty to do something here rather than watch these terrible statistics every day come at us,” Selvage said during the period reserved for commissioner comments at the end of a long day full of meetings.
Nearly 40,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Polk County since the pandemic took hold in March. In addition, 791 deaths and 3,375 hospitalizations have been reported in Polk. New cases hit their first peak in July, tapered off and then built to a crescendo in November and a higher peak in December.
The rate of new tests that come back positive has exceeded 9.9% every day since Dec. 20, a rate that Selvage noted is twice the 5% target for tamping the spread of the virus.
Mayor Bill Mutz was the only commission member who commented on Selvage’s statements, noting that the rate of new cases dropped during the summer when Lakeland and Winter Haven mandated masks. He tossed the gauntlet to the Polk County Commission, saying, “We’re handicapped to some degree to act as a city. We have an opportunity for the county to lead in this. I would appreciate a response by them on this matter.”
During the summer months when mask mandates were put in effect in numerous cities and counties around Central Florida, the Polk County Commission declined to require masks countywide.
Selvage, a 73-year-old retired Marine colonel, served two four-year terms as a city commissioner before announcing in 2017 he would not seek re-election. He was pressed back into city service to serve a portion of the unexpired term of Scott Franklin, who resigned effective Jan. 3 prior to his successful race for U.S. House.
An election will be held April 6 to select a commissioner to fill out the remainder of Franklin’s term, which expires at the end of the year.
Selvage said he was struck by a comment from Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Florida Health Department in Polk County, who said she advocates masking but local policies are up to elected officials.
“It makes me wonder if our health-care front-line people and other people who are interfacing with the public every day, whether it’s restaurants, grocery stores and our medical professionals — they must feel like they’re out there alone in their fight,” he said. “Because here in Polk County the elected officials have done nothing.”
He wondered aloud why the public doesn’t rally around a common cause, as citizens did during World War II by collecting rubber and aluminum, growing victory gardens and enduring gas and food rationing.
“There was a feeling we were in this together and we’re going to have to pull through it together,” he said. “Somehow we lost that. Now it’s become a political statement — ‘I have the right not to wear a mask so screw you’ — And so instead of masks as common courtesy, respect, one for all, I get the impression there are people out there who are only in it for themselves.”