Billy Woods, the sheriff of central Florida’s Marion County, banned masks for all deputies and visitors to the sheriff’s office starting Tuesday, according to a new report from the Ocala Star Banner—a strange decision to make in the middle of a pandemic that’s still wildly out of control.
Sheriff Woods has instructed staff not to wear masks while on duty and said that any public visitors to the sheriff’s office, which currently employs about 900 people, should be told that masks are banned. Anyone who doesn’t want to remove their mask will be told to leave, according to a memo written by Woods and obtained by the Ocala Star Banner.
“Effective immediately, any individual walking in to any one of our lobbies (which includes the main office and all district offices) that is wearing a mask will be asked to remove it,” Woods wrote.
Masks are a vital public health tool to help slow the spread of coronavirus, according to the CDC, and the sheriff’s mask ban comes as Florida broke a new record for daily deaths from covid-19. The Sunshine State recorded 277 new deaths on Tuesday, with 13 of those deaths in Marion County. The U.S. as a whole reported 1,339 new deaths yesterday.
Woods cited anti-police sentiment as one reason for the new ban, strongly hinting that someone might enter the sheriff’s office for nefarious purposes and be unidentifiable with a mask.
Woods wrote, “in light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby.”
Florida has seen a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases over the past few months, with children being particularly hard hit. The number of Florida children under 17 who’ve tested positive for covid-19 rose from 16,797 kids on July 9 to 39,735 on August 9, according to a recent report from CNN. Overall, Florida has identified more than 543,000 cases and 8,552 deaths.
Masks were somewhat controversial in the U.S. medical community during the early days of the pandemic, but health experts in Asia immediately recognized that face coverings could play an important role in stopping the spread of the disease. It’s now widely accepted in the U.S. that masks are a public good and should be widely adopted to help contained covid-19, though Republicans tend to be the most skeptical of masks, according to several polls. President Donald Trump has also been a mask skeptic, though recently pulled a 180 and called mask wearing “patriotic.”
Florida currently has a positivity testing rate of 17.3%, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker, a number that indicates the pandemic is still raging out of control in the state. New York’s positivity rate is currently under 1%, which means that virus is still present, but not nearly as prevalent as places like Mississippi (20.5%) and Texas (20.4%).
Anti-mask sentiment in Florida appears to be high, relative to many other parts of the country. Recently, an anti-mask protest in central Florida made headlines for being an absurd display of stupidity. Ocala, the largest city in Marion County, passed a mandatory mask ordinance last week through its city council, but the mayor, Kent Guinn, vetoed the new order on Monday, according to local ABC TV affiliate WCJB.
Guinn insists that his constituents don’t want a mask ordinance for local businesses, even one that just states businesses should make a “reasonable effort” to get customers to wear face coverings.
“Most want me to veto it. Probably 99 plus percent,” Guinn told WCJB last week.
Marion County went for Donald Trump in 2016, with 61.7% voting for the current president, and 35.5% voting for Hillary Clinton. So while it’s unlikely that “99%” of Guinn’s constituents oppose masks, it’s not hard to believe that a majority might believe the conspiracy theories that masks are a secret plot by the world’s lizard people to make you breathe poison.