St. Augustine Commission votes: Face masks will be required in buildings open to the public

Most Northeast Florida officials encourage people to wear them but do not want to enforce mandate

Face masks (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After more than two hours of listening to wildly different comments on whether requiring face coverings in St. Augustine buildings when social distancing is not possible, the City Commission voted to suspend public input and voted unanimously to pass the ordinance.

In response to the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in Florida and in St. Johns County, City Manager John Regan prepared the ordinance and requested the City Commission meeting, which began at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

“We need to be doing everything possible to safeguard public health and at the same time keep the economy open,” Regan said. “We have a high rate of businesses closing and it’s time for the city (to) make a hard decision.”

After hearing dozens of public comments both strongly in favor of requiring face masks and strongly opposed to the requirement, the board voted to approve the requirement but turned away, for now, a suggestion to require masks be work outside in crowed areas away.

At one point, Mayor Tracy Upchurch said they had lost control of the meeting, being conducted over Zoom with citizens calling in with comments. He recommended reconvening in person on Monday to continue taking public attorney. But after the city attorney told the commission that due to the public health emergency, public comment was not required to pass an emergency ordinance and the commissioners decided to proceed to a vote.

The ordinance

At the county level, St. Johns County commissioners on Wednesday urged local businesses to mandate masks through new a program called Pledge St. Johns County. Commissioners do not currently have plans to mandate masks themselves.

Neither Duval nor Clay counties have plans to make wearing a mask mandatory, although most local governments strongly encourage it.

In most public places, people wearing masks seems to be split.

According to the city, residents and business owners have expressed concern to city leaders and have taken to social media, saying action should be taken to mandate the use of face masks.

“I feel it’s just safer these days, and, you know, you’re almost afraid to go out anywhere without protection,” said Sandra Gager, who wore a mask to a grocery store.

CJ Sapp said: “I think help wearing masks can help the community and environment, so everybody should wear masks to stay safe.”

Leon County’s government voted to make masks mandatory in public places starting midnight Thursday, becoming the latest Florida municipality in a growing list that includes Tampa, Miami and Orange County.

At a news conference Wednesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said he has no plans to mandate masks, but he did repeatedly ask people to wear them.

“As it relates to masks, I encourage it, the governor has encouraged it, but, look, I have heard other cities around the state that said they mandated it and they’ve been asked, ‘How are you going to enforce it?’ And they said, ‘We can’t, therefore, we won’t,‘” Curry said.

Clay County Director of Emergency Management John Ward said at a news conference Wednesday the county strongly recommends people wear a mask when in group settings.

“Again, this is not a mandate, we just strongly encourage that everybody wears a mask around groups,” Ward said.

While opinions on mandating masks are mixed, most people who News4Jax spoke with on Wednesday were against a mandate.

“Well, that’s why we’re here. You know, we’re here to be free and decide what we want to do for ourselves. You take a chance either way. I think the virus is here to stay, we just have to learn to live with it,” Gager said.

Arionna Frazer said: “I think it should be mandatory because people don’t care. Like, you see a lot of people in stores not wearing masks, and half of them could be sick, and we wouldn’t know.”

“I think that everybody needs to make a choice for themselves. This is a free country and I think that people should pay attention to the news, read reports and make decisions that they think is best for themselves,” said Glenn Guiler, who always wears a mask in public.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also against mandating masks, but he also encourages people to wear them when they can’t practice social distancing.