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Hillsborough Face Mask Requirement Continues With Some Changes

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Requirements to wear face masks in Hillsborough County businesses and public spaces will continue for another week, but there are some adjustments.

The county’s Emergency Policy Group voted on Monday to raise the age of children exempt from the mandate from 2 to 8.

Kids under 18 also don’t have to wear face masks if they’re participating in organized youth activities like sports, summer camps, or daycare.

Nonprofit organizations, which originally were among the groups that didn't have to comply with the requirement, now do, as group members noted the original order left out places like museums and Goodwill stores which can draw indoor crowds.

The group sparred over language in the order that says businesses that fail to enforce the mandate will face criminal penalties, including second-degree misdemeanor charges, fines, or jail time.

Some, like Hillsborough County School Board Chair Melissa Snively, said that hurts small business owners.

“Some of the business owners that have reached out to me are concerned about being criminally liable for someone without a mask who walks into their establishment, and they feel as business owners and operators and employees, that they should not be the ones convicted of crimes that they haven’t committed or be de facto police,” she said.

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Clermont, announced on Monday that he is suing the county on behalf of a Plant City farmer over the mask requirement, citing the penalities on business owners as the reason. The lawsuit was not discussed during the EPG meeting.

Mayors Andy Ross of Temple Terrace and Rick Lott of Plant City suggested business owners should only be required to post signs about wearing masks at the entrances to their stores but not be responsible for removing customers who refuse to comply.

These suggestions drew backlash from other members of the group. County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said it’s important to protect businesses that are trying hard to comply with the order from legal harm, but cited the significant increase in people wearing masks in public over the last week as evidence the order is working.

“I would hate to do anything that would actually erode the great response we’ve seen by businesses helping people understand the importance of wearing face coverings inside and a messaging to citizens that, you know, 'There’s no penalty to business owners now, so I’ll just go in without wearing a mask,’” Overman said. “I don’t want to send that message, I think it would be harmful to where we are with our numbers where they are.”

County Chairman Les Miller’s voice rose as he echoed Overman’s sentiments and challenged claims by Snively that the choice of whether or not to wear a mask is an “individual right” when public health experts have said that face coverings play an essential role in preventing coronavirus transmission.

“In 13 days we’ve had 6,362 positive cases and here we go now basically talking about making this a glorified recommendation,” Miller said. “…Somebody has to put the onus on people to wear masks, I don’t seem to understand for the life of me what’s the negativity about people wearing masks when we’re talking about saving lives.”

Group members on both sides agreed more could be done to hold citizens directly accountable, and agreed clarification was needed when it comes to businesses dealing with customers who blatantly refuse to comply as well as customers with medical exemptions.

The EPG decided to wait until next week to make any changes on that issue and will do more research into options for a compromise in the meantime.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.