Nassau County considering mandatory mask order for businesses

It’s not just the large Northeast Florida counties seeing a jump in positive COVID-19 cases.

NASSAU COUNTY, Fla. – It’s not just the large Northeast Florida counties seeing a jump in positive COVID-19 cases.

Nassau County, which used to see one or two new positive cases a day, or none at all, broke its one-day high Friday with 11 new cases, one of those a 12-year-old boy.

Emergency Manager Greg Foster said there’s a surge in the percent of positive test results in Nassau County not just because of an increase in access to testing, but because of a decrease in actions taken to prevent community transmission and because some people no longer adhered to CDC guidelines.

A growing number of young people are fueling Northeast Florida’s coronavirus surge.

Jacksonville Beach has been the hotspot in recent weeks and that impact has trickled over into neighboring counties.

The general manager of Amelia Tavern in Fernandina Beach said she had an employee test positive after a night out at the Jax Beach bars, the same week dozens of others then tested positive.

“It’s terrible, honestly, to kind of hit close to home in that sense,” said Megan Georgeo.

She closed the restaurant for a day and a half for deep cleaning.

The employee had only worked inside for about five hours and also self-quarantined for days before the positive result, so Georgeo is confident her restaurant and customers are safe.

The restaurant posted on social media about what happened and got back a positive response for being transparent.

“Oh my goodness, I was so shocked at how positive it actually was. It was really incredible. I think that’s kind of the name of our game at this point. You know we are a small business we have nothing to hide,” she said.

Of Nassau’s eight new cases reported Thursday, all but two people were in their 20s and 30s. Of Friday’s 11 new cases, 7 people were in their 20s and 30s.

Foster said the downward trend in age the state of Florida is seeing Nassau County is also experiencing.

“We are seeing that 20s, 30s age group which indicates to us that it’s dealing with social interaction and probably because of the business is opening up more things for people to go out and do,” Foster said.

There are now 146 total cases in Nassau County.

Amelia Tavern is one of a couple dozen Nassau County restaurants and businesses that have made the #NassauSafe list.

It’s a new county initiative that identifies businesses operating in CDC compliance as “Nassau Safe Approved.”

It’s a joint effort by the Nassau County Emergency Management Office as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

They want to let Nassau residents know which restaurants and businesses have employees wear masks at all times and are doing their part to stay sanitized.

Arte’s Pizza in Fernandina Beach has already made the Nassau Safe list for its rigorous sanitation process.

“Door handles bathrooms sinks everything gets sanitized very very regularly we are all suited and booted with gloves and masks and things like that,” said general manager Samuel Forbes.

To be deemed “Nassau Safe” local businesses must do all three main safety protocols: operate at reduced capacity, practice social distancing and have all employees wear masks.

Businesses can self-report as a candidate for the list but Foster said “Nassau Safe” results are also based on customer experience.

“It’s meant to be a positive to not only let the community know that there are businesses out there that are complying and doing what they need to do but also letting the businesses know if they are not complying what they should be doing and providing them with some tools to be able to bring themselves up to the point where they are compliant with the CDC guidelines,” Foster said.

Through next Wednesday, Nassau County and City of Fernandina Beach Code Enforcement will begin visiting businesses to see if CDC and mask recommendations are being followed.

If businesses don’t voluntarily comply the county is considering issuing an Executive Order making it mandatory.

Nassau County's announcement tightening down on masks in public places comes within 24 hours of the State of Florida banning the on-premise sale of alcohol at bars.

Fernandina business owners said it's a lot to process.

“It puts a lot of stress on everybody,” Ricky Pigg, owner and executive chef of Joes 2nd Street Bistro, said.

Pigg said the downtown service industry is very close, and he hurts for bar owners who are now basically being shuttered a second time.

“For all the bars and restaurants to kind of get hit and blindsided by it, it kind of takes morale down a little bit,” Pigg said. “But the one thing about our community we have done is come together and support each other through whatever ways we possibly can.”

His restaurant, also deemed “Nassau Safe” has already been requiring all employees to wear masks since early May.

Now, Nassau and Fernandina Beach officials are looking for those who don't, saying they're giving them through next week to start voluntarily complying or else an executive order could make it mandatory.

“I think it’s probably a good idea with the rise,” Susan Smith said.

Smith lives in Fernandina Beach, and likes the idea of masks inside, but questions how it will be enforced.

“How are they going to supervise it? Is somebody going to go around to give you a ticket if you don’t have your mask on?” Smith questioned. “I mean, that’s really hard to kind of do.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Nassau County Emergency Management are working on a system to distribute masks to businesses needing help supplying them to employees and patrons.

County and city code enforcement officers at this point are just going around for observation, taking notes on who’s not requiring employees to wear masks and reporting that back to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, who would ultimately issue any citations.

You can find the list of all the restaurants, hotels, stores and other businesses deemed “Nassau Safe” here.

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