Bay Area leaders begin discussions about mask mandate exit strategy

Health experts attribute the steady decline in Florida's new COVID-19 case numbers to measures like social distancing and mask-wearing. While mask mandates remain in effect in several Bay Area communities, some local leaders are beginning to consider when is the appropriate time to loosen them.

That was the topic of the night Tuesday in Winter Haven, where commissioners voted to extend their mask ordinance once again for 30 days. The two-hour discussion began with an update from Dr. Joy Jackson, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County.

Over two months, Jackson reported that there's been a decline in new COVID-19 cases, in Winter Haven and Polk County. The county's positivity rate dropped from nearly 15% in mid-July to 7.25%.

"Things are improving for sure but I would say we are definitely not out of the woods yet," Jackson warned.

Still, commissioners pondered - when will it be safe to lift the mandate? 

"What is the magical number?" asked Commissioner J.P. Powell. "Of course it would be zero. But if we were like at 5%?"

"My comfort level is to at least be under 5%," Jackson said. "The lower we get, the better. And we are just not quite there yet. I would also caution that we can't look at just one value. We can't just look at positivity. That needs to be part of our picture, including our new case trends."

The commission agreed to work with Dr. Jackson on a numbers-based exit strategy, setting goals for:

  • positivity rate (for example, 5% or lower over 14 days)
  • new COVID-19 cases
  • number of COVID-19 hospital beds available
  • Emergency Department visits for COVID-19

If these criteria are met, masks could be encouraged, not required.

"Paper masks, cotton masks, homemade masks, do we feel like they are helping or not?" asked Mayor Bradley Dantzler. "That's the million-dollar question."

The pressing issue Tuesday night revolved around the mask ordinance, itself - to end or extend for 30 more days? 

"You've got 50% of the community that wants the mask ordinance to be continued and you've got 50% of the community that thinks it should end right away," said Commissioner Brian Yates, on the fence.

"I feel that we have to," said Commissioner Tracy Mercer. "If we can obtain that 5% and those numbers, then I want to make sure we've given it our best."

City leaders have heard plenty of rants and raves, both before and after the mask mandate took effect July 14th. They had several more to consider Tuesday night, both on the Zoom call and in e-mails read aloud.

"Can we end the worthless mask mandate and stop following Lakeland's stupidity?" wrote Sean Allen in an e-mail.

"I do think that the mask ordinance is helping, especially right now with kids getting back to school," said Rhonda Todd on the Zoom call, in support of the extension.

Ultimately, it was a unanimous vote, 5-0, to extend the mask mandate for another month.

"Yes," Dantzler voted, "we are in for another 30 days. We will pick this up again. Those votes, I almost feel like I need to apologize to some people for them, but it is what it is. We are doing what we think is right, trying to protect the people." 

Winter Haven's mask ordinance will continue until October 15. The commission will now spend some time developing the exit strategy criteria with Dr. Jackson, shooting to meet again in two weeks to work out the details.