At both, the Pasco and Pinellas County BOCC meetings this week, frustration over wearing masks was the theme of public comments, which is also clearly difficult for the commissioners. Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director, Florida Department of Health, was in person at the Pinellas County BOCC meeting, marking this week as one full year of the pandemic in this area.
Dr. Ulyee Choe again reviewed the data including 68,085 infection cases; 1,432 deaths; 167 currently hospitalized; and a 4.5 percent positivity rate. Dr. Choe was clearly emotional as he mentioned the more than 1400 deaths, many of which he knew and was included in the memorials.
Of note from his comments is a “softening” in the amount of those 65 and older requesting the vaccine. Both he and the commissioners urge those who are able to get the vaccine to get appointments booked. As the new groups begin to open, Monday will include 80,000 residents in Pinellas, ages 60-64. Soon after more age groups will open and appointments get filled again.
Two moms in Pasco County, among others, appeared before the commissioners to stress their sadness and concern over teen suicide and the mental health of children in general.
Specifically, a friend of the Buckner family from the Northbrook area spoke about Dylan Buckner’s suicide on January 7th which drew national attention by the Chicago Tribune and other news outlets. Kathy Juliene from New Port Richey is a long-time friend of Dylan’s mother and asked that the commissioners re-evaluate the need for masks, the alienation, and frustration she feels results in destructive mental health issues. Stephanie Rameriz also of New Port Richie appeared to share her concerns.
Jill Gibbs, a quadriplegic mom from Clearwater, explained how her family, including her husband and two boys, moved from Tennessee to Clearwater after googling “the most accessible city in America,” and finding Clearwater is number one. Gibbs thanked the board for its hard work to ensure the beautiful county is accessible and enjoyable for people in wheelchairs and noted how grateful she is for all the activities she is able to do in the area.
However, she spoke Tuesday to end the mask mandate and to the fact that the mandates include special needs and medical exemptions but they are not understood by the public at large. She reiterated the agony she experiences trying to breathe with limited lung function through a mask, “experiencing dizziness and headaches within minutes of putting on a mask.” Even more importantly she stressed are the numerous accounts of “bullying” she and her family have experienced. She expressed her frustration with businesses and the public not understanding the medical exemptions. Gibbs was injured during a gymnastics accident.
Others who appeared before the commission include Lisa ODonnell, St. Petersburg, who provided an open letter written by a member of Pinellas Watch urging commissioners to “follow the lead of other counties in the state.” Laura Bradshaw, Palm Harbor, who is a nurse practitioner with a long history in medicine spoke to working measures put in place that have flattened the curve, indicating “it is time to lift the mask mandates.” She also spoke to inaccuracies in testing measures and in data reporting.
The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners did vote to extend the mask ordinance through March 19th. Commissioner Kathryn Peters asked the commission to take a dive deep into the review of data and have a very open discussion with the public noting there are extreme fatigue and a mental health crisis peaking.
Commissioner Eggers agreed and said that these discussions will be extensively reviewed in April. Commissioner Janet Long agreed but reiterated her concerns over the influx of tourists for spring break and the need to continue to protect residents of Pinellas County.
In Hillsborough County where business owners presented their cases to commissioners over the last several weeks, dozens of businesses were fined or closed for three days for not following masks mandates.
Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued and Executive order to negate these fines in the state.
The order is, “a categorical, statewide remission of fines related to COVID-19 restrictions is warranted in light of the unprecedented local government restrictions imposed on individuals and businesses over the course of the past year.”
“As Governor of Florida, by virtue of the authority vested in me under Article IV, Section 8(a) of the Florida Constitution, promulgate the following Executive Order,” said DeSantis
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