Hoping to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the number of those with the virus in Florida has exploded, the Sarasota City Commission on Monday voted to move forward with an ordinance requiring individuals to wear masks when they are in public. The city is the latest local government to pursue such a measure. The towns of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria on Anna Maria Island have recently adopted similar rules.
Commissioners on Monday debated how to craft rules to cover both indoor and outdoor spaces when social distancing is not possible. They also created exemptions for children and for people with health conditions that might be worsened by wearing a mask and those in other special circumstances.
The commission voted 4-1 for the mask mandate, with Commissioner Hagen Brody the lone holdout. He favored requiring masks to be worn indoors, but questioned how the rules governing wearing of masks in outdoor spaces might be enforced.
The ordinance is set to take effect Wednesday, July 1.
City Manager Tom Barwin said his office received an overwhelming amount of input from the public on the issue. He reported that 320 people called to voice their opinion on a mask ordinance, with 281 in favor and 39 opposed. Nearly 300 people emailed the city to weigh in.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages people to wear cloth masks because doing so "may slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others." Masks help stop "respiratory droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people," according to the CDC. The Florida Department of Health is also encouraging everyone to "cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others and out in public."
We talked to Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist and a medical professor at the University of Florida, who focuses on reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths. She says as many as 80 percent of people who contract the virus have few symptoms or are asymptomatic, meaning that they can be spreading the disease without knowing they have it.
Masks, she says, not only reduce the risks of contracting the virus, they reduce the chance of infecting others. And, she adds, masks are not a hardship, at least compared to shutting down businesses, schools and other public places.
Experts say fewer than 10 percent of Americans have contracted the virus. To reach the stage of herd immunity that effectively ends the pandemic, 60 percent to 70 percent of people would need to be infected. “That’s something we do not want to see,” Prins says. “That’s why we need to take the necessary precautions now to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Scientists are said to be closing in on a vaccine. But Prins says the public should prepare for the pandemic getting worse before things get better. She is particularly concerned about the fall and winter, when COVID-19 and the seasonal flu could strike at the same time.
“As much as we wish it would,” Prins says, “this is just not going to go away tomorrow or the next day.”