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Florida commission not ready to repeal mask ordinance yet

A food server wearing a protective face mask waits on customers at the Parkshore Grill restaurant Monday, May 4, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Several restaurants are reopening with a 25% capacity as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' plan to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
A food server wearing a protective face mask waits on customers at the Parkshore Grill restaurant Monday, May 4, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Several restaurants are reopening with a 25% capacity as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' plan to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Some residents of one of Florida’s largest counties called for its commission Thursday to rescind an ordinance requiring the wearing of masks in public to stop the spread of the coronavirus, saying it is no longer needed and is an infringement of their rights.

Dozens of people on both sides tried to persuade the Pinellas County Commission, with mask supporters saying the coverings are what led to the reduction of cases and should be maintained. The debate came as Florida reported new cases of COVID-19 remained about one-third the level of two months ago, but the daily death toll again exceeded 100.

In the afternoon, the commission decided it wasn't ready to discuss a repeal just yet, and left the mask ordinance in place.

Many residents addressing the Pinellas County commission claimed the mask mandate is unconstitutional, and used words like “tyranny” when discussing it. They said that because the percent of positive cases locally is in the 2% to 3% range, it’s no longer necessary. The Tampa Bay county includes St. Petersburg and is Florida's sixth largest, with more than 900,000 residents.

Pinellas has recorded 715 deaths since March, with 70% occurring in long-term care facilities, said Dr. Ulyee Choe, the county's health director.

Robert Hellinger, a Largo resident, said masks gives a “false sense of security" and hamper business.

"Let's let the economy heal,” he said.

Kelly Edwards of Tarpon Springs said “it’s not the government’s place to mandate masks,” and that the ordinance violates people’s rights.

“It’s beyond time to open all business and allow people to make decisions for ourselves,” Edwards said.

But others implored commissioners to keep the mask ordinance, saying it is working to keep the coronavirus in check.

“We’re helping each other. We’re a society that should be taking care of each other,” said Carol Levinsky of Palm Harbor, who said she is a senior citizen.

Deja-Denice Sherrod of St. Petersburg said the Black community in Pinellas County has been hard hit by the virus, and made pointed remarks about the people who want the mask ordinance to be repealed.

“Y’all are prioritizing your own comfort and upset about having an itchy cloth over your face, over people actually dying,” she said. “It’s very clear to me that you’ve never heard of science before March.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch said the board has received about 1,000 emails in addition to the callers Thursday.

Commissioners also added that the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa urged the commission not to repeal the ordinance.

Florida's number of reported COVID-19 cases has dropped substantially since its peak in mid-July, when the state was averaging almost 12,000 newly reported cases daily. This past week, Florida has averaged about 2,700 confirmed cases a day, including more than 3,200 on Thursday. Hospitalizations have also decreased — there were about 2,900 Floridians hospitalized with the coronavirus Thursday, compared to 9,500 in late July.

Still, the rolling weekly average death toll remains above 100 a day, where it has remained for two months. On Thursday, another 147 COVID-19 deaths were recorded by the health department, bringing the state's total deaths to at least 13,247 since the first was reported March 1.

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County school board rejected a request by its teachers union that it fire Superintendent Donald Fennoy over his handling of the virus outbreak and the district's planned reopening of its campuses next week.

“Everyone is doing the best that they can right now, and that includes the superintendent,” board member Erica Whitfield said, according to the Palm Beach Post.

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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.