Alarmed by the rapid jump in the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations over the past week, Seminole County officials on Monday issued an executive order that requires everyone to wear a mask when they are inside a business or attending any other public gathering indoors.
Seminole’s order will take effect on Wednesday. People can take off their masks while eating or drinking inside a restaurant, for example. However, while they are waiting in a restaurant’s lobby or shopping at a store, they must have their faces covered, according to the order.
The new policy comes about a week after Seminole officials said they would not put a mask order in place, despite pleas from residents on social media who suggested it was the right thing to do. County Commission Chairman Jay Zembower said at the time that he didn’t think such an order would be enforceable.
Seminole’s mandate closely mirrors Orange County’s mask order, which went into effect June 20. Osceola County also has a mask order.
“At one point here in Seminole County we did flatten the curve,” Zembower said Monday. “And we praised the public for their vigilance and diligence in doing the right thing. Then what happened? We opened the economy back up, people went back to work. ……Now, behold, we’re starting to see the numbers starting to climb. And not only climb, but here in Seminole county, as well as in the other Central Florida counties, they have climbed extremely high.”
Seminole’s order comes as health officials are seeing a recent spike in hospitalizations, particularly patients in ICU on ventilators. On Monday, 92 people were being treated at county hospitals for COVID-19, an increase of 17 patients since Friday. Of those 92 patients, 15 are in the Intensive Care Unit.
“We haven’t had people on ventilators in more than a month,” said Dr. Todd Husty, Seminole County’s medical director.
Like the mask rule in Orange County, Seminole’s does not include penalties for violations. However, chronic offenders, such as businesses that repeatedly allow patrons to walk inside without a mask, may be issued warnings or fines, Zembower said.
From June 21 through June 27, Seminole County recorded 1,112 positive cases of the coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Health. A month earlier, from May 21 through May 27, Seminole tallied 94 cases. That’s a more than tenfold increase.
County health officials said the high numbers are not simply the result of more testing. Over the past week, health workers tested no fewer than 662 individuals a day in Seminole, and the rate of positive results climbed to 22%. In May, the positivity rate was about 2.7%.
“It has been a very concerning week,” said Donna Walsh, Seminole’s officer for the state’s Department of Health.
County health officials pointed out that the state of Florida issued a public health advisory on June 20 urging people to wear masks.
Seminole’s order also mandates that patrons and employees of businesses maintain a six foot distance. Participants at business meetings, workshops and training sessions also must keep a six-foot distance.
Masks are not required at businesses or public gatherings held outdoors as long as a six foot distance can be maintained.
Other exceptions to the mask order include: Children under the age of 2; Individuals who would have a health impairment wearing a mask; People who work in a profession in which they do not interact with the public and are able to maintain a six-foot distance from co-workers; People exercising outdoors.
Zembower called the mask order a “delicate balance” between public safety and avoiding closing businesses and issuing a stay-at-home order.
“This is to protect the public,” he said. “But this is also to allow businesses to continue to operate. We do not want to get back in a situation where we are forced by our state or federal government to close back down. We cannot afford to do that.”
Zembower also blasted people who refuse to wear masks by claiming individual liberties or those who falsely claim that masks cause health problems.
“The reality is that we know [masks] work,” he said. “I would ask people this question: We know certain roads have a lot of traffic. So would you put your earplugs in, blind fold yourself and walk across that same street? That’s basically what you’re doing when you’re not wearing a face mask out in public.”