ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – After more than two hours of listening to wildly different comments on requiring face coverings in St. Augustine buildings when social distancing is not possible, the City Commission voted to suspend public input and unanimously passed the resolution.
In response to the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in Florida and in St. Johns County, City Manager John Regan prepared the resolution and requested the emergency City Commission meeting Friday morning.
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, from a suggestion to require masks should also be worn outside in crowded areas such as St. George Street.
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 order and the commissioners decided to proceed to vote.
The administrative rule requires face coverings be worn inside businesses and other buildings open to the public. It does make exceptions for those with medical conditions, while people are eating and drinking, during exercise, for children under age 2 and where people are working and can maintain social distance of at least 6 feet.
The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and will last as long as St. Augustine is under a state of emergency for COVID-19. The order is enforceable as a civil infraction and those in violation could be subject to a $500 fine.
Regan told the commission that several businesses have been forced to close because of the coronavirus and have asked the city to require masks and that more than 80% of 336 emails the city received supported the face-covering requirement.
“It’s in response to the pleading of multiple businesses, especially the restaurant industry that are struggling with no government standard and it’s a constant battle with customers and employees. So, they’re asking for this,” said Regan. “The whole point is to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to manage the risk so that people that become in need of healthcare can access healthcare, that’s the whole theory of slowing down the spread. We don’t want to overflow the hospital.”
Even before the resolution was adopted, many businesses required people to wear masks to enter.
Matt Stevens, general manager of the St. Augustine Distillery, said every member of his staff wears a mask and they have handed them out to visitors all along. He’s had a positive reaction from customers.
“Anything we can do to keep our community safe, we think it’s a great step in the right direction,” Stevens said.
But others out in the community Friday were not happy face coverings would not be a personal choice.
“I think it’s just all about your immune system. If you’re older or for sick people -- it’s more important for sick people,” said Cheyenne, who was visiting St. Augustine from Franklin, Georgia. “No, I don’t think it should be required.”