SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

No masks in Walton County, commissioners reject mask resolution with unanimous vote

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Faced with public comment overwhelmingly against even a recommendation from the local government that face masks be worn as a means of helping to control the spread of COVID-19, Walton County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday against a narrow resolution encouraging wearing masks in public.

More:CORONAVIRUS: Walton County Commission takes no action on mask ordinance

More:Walton has legally defensible option for mask ordinance

More:Walton County sets mask requirements for some county offices

The resolution rejected Tuesday also would have merely encouraged businesses to direct customers to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. But even before the vote on the resolution, Commissioner Danny Glidewell moved to soften the language of that part of the proposal, so as not to indicate that the county was anywhere close to mandating that businesses require masks.

“I do not think government is in the position to mandate everything ...," Commission Chairman Bill Chapman said immediately prior to the vote, adding that, after a month of  considering the mask issue, he and the commission have "more important things that we need to be addressing."

Earlier in the meeting, Chapman had taken a more moderate approach, telling the people gathered in the meeting room and others joining by video conference, “We are not mandating … this is just an encouragement, when you can’t social distance, that you consider wearing a mask.”,

Commissioner Melanie Nipper, speaking just prior to the vote, told the crowd in the commission's Freeport meeting room that, prior to hearing from the anti-masking advocates in the chambers, she had seen the resolution as a relatively innocuous way of addressing the issue.

“After hearing you, I don’t think it’s benign," she said.

What Nipper and the other commissioners heard, with the exception of one woman who joined the meeting via teleconference to argue for the resolution, was a string of comments suggesting that there is little evidence of the efficacy of masks, and even just recommending that they be worn was an example of government overreach.

Walton County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously rejected a resolution that would have encouraged, but not mandated, the wearing of masks in public and in businesses as a means of helping to control the spread of COVID-19.  [DAILY NEWS/FILE].

Specifically, the resolution rejected Tuesday read, in relevant part, that "(e)very person living, working, visiting or doing business in unincorporated Walton County is encouraged, when social distancing is not possible, to wear a face covering in any public location."

The resolution went on to note that "(a)ll businesses are encouraged to direct business invitees to wear a face covering where social distancing is not available to minimize the spread of COVID-19, and to place appropriate signage at business entrances explaining the establishments’ policy."

The resolution would have taken effect immediately upon adoption and would have expired with termination of the local state of emergency declared by the commission in March, largely as a means of getting state and federal support for the county's actions in connection with addressing COVID-19. That declaration, first issued in March, must be reviewed and reinstated by the commission chairman or the full commission every seven days.

But some at the Tuesday meeting complained that even a resolution, which would not have carried the force of law, was a step too far for the commission, with one person arguing that "'resolution' means to take a firm stand," and another claiming that the word caries the same meaning as "verdict."

“This is not China or the Soviet Union, so why are you allowing our civil liberties to be trampled?” one woman asked.

“Do we require sunscreen for anyone who steps outside or on the beach?” a man in the meeting room asked.

Another man, claiming that breathing into masks creates humidity that serves as a breeding ground for germs, told commissioners, "We need to stop this. I won’t comply. We’re becoming a communist country.”

Opponents of the mask resolution initially urged commissioners to table the issue, but commissioners subsequently told them that tabling the resolution meant that it could be brought back up at any time for commission consideration. Tuesday's unanimous vote against the resolution means that the issue can't be brought up for at least six months.

Tuesday's vote came nearly one month after public pressure prompted commissioners  to ask Assistant County Attorney Heather Christman for a report on the enforceability and other aspects of a potential countywide mask ordinance, and two weeks after Christman reported that a Leon County ordinance gave Walton County a legally defensible route to enacting such an ordinance.

At that July 28 commission meeting, which like the commission's July 14 meeting, featured public comment from both proponents and opponents of wearing masks — with some opponents threatening willful non-compliance if an ordinance were enacted — commissioners sat in silence as public comment ended.

But later, with the meeting winding down, commissioners indicated in talking among themselves that they would be willing to consider a resolution prepared by county counsel, which was the proposal presented to them Tuesday.