Late on Wednesday, July 15, the Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to bolster the county’s existing mask ordinance.
The existing ordinance, enacted at the June BOCC meeting, requires masks and other similar face coverings at “business establishments” until June 1, 2021.
County Attorney Bob Shillinger requested a motion and guidance on strengthening that rule to update definitions, expand its scope, clarify exceptions and potentially add criminal penalties.
“One week after we adopted the ordinance, we had the first week of spikes,” Shillinger told the county commissioners. “Shannon Weiner issued an emergency directive to supplement the ordinance to include outdoor as well as indoor businesses, too.”
Shillinger incorporated that change in the new rule.
The new, stronger ordinance will also require:
- Stricter penalties for non-compliance with face covering requirements, including fines up to $500 and 60 days in the county jail;
- Businesses must ensure customers comply within their establishment;
- Mandatory three-day closure for disinfecting of business establishments with an employee who tests positive and self-quarantine of any exposed persons (with an exemption for “essential businesses” like pharmacies and fire stations);
- The ability for county or municipal code compliance officers to issue a notice to appear or civil citation for violations.
Under the ordinance, all persons over the age of six must wear a face covering when away from their home and unable to engage in social distancing, defined as being 6 feet or more away from others. Every person over six must carry a covering capable of immediate use at all times away from his/her residence.
Municipalities may impose additional restrictions, and Key West has a stricter policy of requiring coverings regardless of social distancing while outside the home.
Bob Eadie, administrator and health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, said, “I support anything that will get people to do what they’re supposed to do, which is wear a mask and social distance.”
Eadie has requested additional contact tracers and the CDC strike team’s assistance to increase testing and contact tracing to help combat the precipitous rise in cases and hospitalizations that the county has seen since removing the checkpoints and allowing non-residents back into the Florida Keys on June 1.
“As long as Miami Dade continues in the direction they’re headed, we will need help and we will need it in a hurry. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Eadie said. “I think we will continue to see this rise, and we are right on the edge of not being able to contact trace everyone.”
Eadie also encouraged the commission to provide businesses and restaurants with a standard set of rules to follow if and when someone at the business establishment tests positive for COVID-19. Those include closing to the public for three days for deep sanitization and requiring infected individuals and any persons in contact with them to self-isolate for 14 days.
Eadie and Commissioner David Rice both commented on the fact that the majority of people running businesses, resorts, restaurants, etc. are working really hard to protect people using their services and to go by the guidelines.
“They are not the problem,” Rice said. “Bottom line is, we’ve got a few bad actors out there and they have the potential to hurt everyone.”
Rice also noted that while there was a lot of “controversy around the effectiveness of masking” and a lot of “bad information” in the public at the start, that he had yet to find a country that has dealt with their coronavirus infections effectively that “didn’t deal with it in the way Bob Eadie told us to from day one ‒ with masking, social distancing and hygiene.”
The commissioners discussed how to give the new ordinance “some teeth” through increased fines for violations and enforcement.
“I think we have to have enforcement and we have to have rigorous enforcement because the health of the county and of the economy of Monroe County is at stake,” Rice said.
Shillinger described the options available under the new ordinance: law enforcement officers can issue citations up to $500 for violators and $500 for businesses. Repeat offenses will draw increased fines. Code enforcement officers can also handle violations, with $1,000 fines for first offenses and $5,000 for second. Finally, individuals also have a private right of action to report violators.
Robby Majeska, a business owner in Key Largo who is running for the District 5 County Commission seat, asked the BOCC to provide a consistent poster that every business can display, telling visitors what the law is, what customers have to do and that the business is liable and can be fined for noncompliance.
“If we have the same signs, it might give visitors an idea we’re serious,” Majeska said. “Not a day goes by when I have to tell someone they can’t come in and they say, ‘I don’t live here. I don’t have to follow that rule.’”
Weiner assured Majeska and the BOCC that the policy group was already working on a draft of such a poster, which will be distributed to all businesses in Monroe County in the coming week. The Sheriff’s Office and Fire Rescue will assist in distributing the posters and helping businesses understand the mask requirements under the new ordinance.
The motion to approve the amended ordinance as discussed passed unanimously.