AC Commissioner responds: why masks are required

The Alachua County Commission enacted an emergency order requiring people to wear masks when they are interacting with others in public places. Some people – such as infants and those with mental or physical conditions that make it difficult to wear masks – are exempted.

The arguments we’ve received from people who don’t want to wear masks in public are:

– masks don’t work
– you can’t tell me what to do
– if you require masks, then you have to provide them, and
– why weren’t they required earlier

Here’s my brief response to these points:

1. Masks do reduce but not eliminate the spread of the coronavirus. They are the front line of a range of efforts that include frequent hand washing, temperature screening, abundant tests with quick and accurate results, rapid and thorough contact tracing, effective isolation, and eventually a vaccine. Of all of these, masks are the only outwardly visible signal that you are contributing to the solution. And for essential workers such as first responders, store clerks, and personal service providers who come in close proximity to dozens or hundreds of strangers each day, masks are also a sign of respect that you recognize their risk and are doing something to lower it.

2. Local governments, under the current state of emergency, have the authority to enact more protective measures than those rolled out by the State. This has been confirmed by the Governor’s office by people who have checked with them, including some who were considering legal challenges. The State of Florida has preempted its local governments from opening businesses, facilities, or activities which the State has ordered to be closed.

3. Local government agencies are not required to provide masks or other protective gear, and in many cases employers are not providing them even if they require them. This is not dissimilar to protective equipment like steel-toed shoes, safety goggles, hard hats, and other stuff that some workers are expected to wear to job sites. However, some agencies are attempting to find supplies of masks that they can provide to people so they won’t be turned away, and some businesses may do the same for their customers especially as supply chains for masks become more robust and costs return to normal.

4. In the early phase of the pandemic, we didn’t mandate masks for a couple of reasons. First, there was conflicting information about their effectiveness, but today there is consensus from most authorities that the benefits of widespread mask usage outweigh their costs and inconvenience. 

And secondly, during the six weeks of the stay-at-home phase, there were substantially fewer people out and about, and this social distancing flattened the curve of the infection rate. In this first phase of re-opening, with all retail, plus restaurants, construction sites, and many other activities back in operation, it is very likely that the epidemic will re-kindle unless we take proactive measures to reduce its person-to-person spread – and masks are one part of the strategy that each of us can do.

It deeply troubles me that store clerks are being threatened by those who are too selfish or inconsiderate to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And those who say they would wear a mask only if you suggest we do, but will refuse if you tell us we have to, are engaging in juvenile temper tantrums. We are all frustrated, but taking it out on store clerks is simply indecent.

And then there’s folks who have said they would comply if the president or governor say we have to, but not if local officials do. I wish those at the top were making it easier by leading, but from my vantage point, local governments are doing the best that we can with the information and resources we have, and have shown creativity, flexibility, and transparency to the best of our abilities.

Thank you for your efforts, large and small, to work together towards a full and safe recovery for our community.

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