TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Attendees at Tuesday night's meeting expected to leave with a clear decision on whether commissioners would enforce a county-wide mask mandate. Instead, they learned why the county attorney warns against it.
New state law limits the extent to which local governments can respond to emergencies that are not weather-related.
"Anything that we do that constitutes an emergency order expires in seven days unless the board meets and the majority of the members vote to extend it," says Leon county attorney Chastity Osteen.
That differs from last year when an order could be extended without members having to meet. An order could only be in place for a maximum of 42 days, and "The governor can also choose to invalidate it at any time if he or she determines that the emergency order unnecessarily violates individual rights or liberties," says Osteen.
The Leon County Commission's special meeting on COVID-19
After 42 days, a local government would be prohibited from issuing a similar order. If challenged in court the burden of proof would be on the governing board.
Chief Chad Abrams said EMS calls for service are 14 percent higher this year than last year. Abrams said in the past five weeks, that has grown 26 percent; however, that number is stabilizing.
Meeting participants applaud as Savour restaurant owner Drew McCleod spoke against the possibility of a mask mandate.
McCleod wanted to remind commissioners of the impact previous COVID-19 closures had on the hospitality industry.
Seven Leon County residents joined the meeting to speak in person; all expressed opposition to any mask mandate.
Commissioner Nick Maddox pointed out that health officials have not requested a mask mandate, and that the county doesn’t currently have legal grounds to do.
"I'm not interested in an exercise of futility," said commissioner Carolyn Cummings on the Commission passing a County-wide mask mandate. "[We should] not mandate the masks when we do not have the legal authority to do so."
Kristin Dozier made a motion to require masks in county facilities, explore if they could be required for certain events and for more information about grants. Commission Chair Rick Minor seconded.
Commissioner Brian Welch says he is nowhere near being ready to install a mask mandate in indoor public places.
Commissioner Dozier raised a motion to require masks in all county facilities, seconded by Minor. Commissioner Welch says he doesn’t currently support it.
While there was no formal motion or vote on the matter Tuesday, the general consensus was not to land Leon county in legal trouble.
"We are all concerned about the health safety and welfare, but we have to address it legally," said Leon county commissioner Carolyn Cummings.
Now citizens are hoping leaders come up with other ways to stop the spread of COVID.
"I know what you want," says Stanley Sims, who lives in Tallahassee, "but this is what the law says we can do we're going to come back together to see if we can get creative to do whatever we can to keep our community safe."
Commissioners did vote to revisit a motion to require masks for county employees during their next meeting.