FLORIDA – On COVID-19 restrictions, what to do when elected officials clash with staff experts?

FLORIDA – On COVID-19 restrictions, what to do when elected officials clash with staff experts?

Palm Coast Observer | Jonathan Simmons | June 4, 2020

On May 27, Florida Department of Health-Flagler Administrator Bob Snyder and Medical Director Stephen Bickel spoke during Palm Coast’s Virtual Town Hall to urge people to protect others from COVID-19 by wearing masks. 

A few days later, Flagler County commissioners at a June 1 commission meeting undermined that advice.

“When we make decisions, it’s not in a vacuum. I consider my 89 year old mother, my great niece who just had open heart surgery, a firefighter that just had a baby, and the many of our firefighters, our people, that are on this front line dealing with this crisis all the while we are still criticized by some for actions we take.”

— JERRY FORTE, Palm Coast fire chief, on how city staff determine policies about COVID-19 safety

“Wearing a mask — you know, there’s half the medical community out there says that’s bulls—, you shouldn’t be wearing a mask,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “I think we’re at the point where we have to treat people as adults and human beings, and if you’re worried, stay home. If you’re worried, wear a mask. Otherwise, go about your business.”

“If you fear, stay home,” Commissioner Joe Mullins said. “Nobody’s making anybody come out.” 

Health officials have emphasized that the purpose of wearing a cloth mask isn’t primarily to protect the wearer. Instead, it’s to protect other people — for instance, grocery store clerks who interact with hundreds of people a day — from the mask wearer in case the wearer is ill and shedding the virus but doesn’t know it. The mask is intended to help contain virus particles emitted from the mask wearer’s mouth and nose.

The commissioners’ comments followed remarks by Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron about the contradictory advice that’s come from the CDC and various health officials who’d initially discouraged mask wearing before later changing course and encouraging it. Cameron noted that the latest change in direction appeared to be an acknowledgment that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors among people who are social-distancing. 

Even so, he noted, “The experts are still more expert than we are.”

THE CHURCHES

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Mullins has taken up a new cause on Facebook: posting that churches should be able to reopen, that government doesn’t have rights over religion and that Flagler will stand up for religious freedom. 

“This is the true battle about re opening Churches,” he wrote. “Flagler is a strong a Christian County and will stand for its Religious Freedoms. We will fight hard for you!” 

In other instances, he wrote, “I am calling for all Flagler County Churches to safely reopen! … In no way does Government have any rights over religion,” and, “If parks can open safely, Churches are fine. We need to support the safe opening of our Flagler County Churches.” 

Some residents, writing in the comments, cheered him for defending religious freedom.

But others pointed out a problem with his argument: Churches in Florida have not been required to close due to COVID-19. In fact, houses of worship were specifically exempted by the governor, via an executive order, from restrictions that would affect their ceremonies. 

Asked if he knew of any instances of local churches being ordered to close — and, if not, what his comments were referring to — Mullins wrote to a reporter, “Nowhere do I say we closed them. I have been told some are assuming that the 10 or less gatherings imply [sic] to them. I am asking for pastors to open and to lead by faith not fear and that they have my full support to open despite the fear mongers.”

Asked why he didn’t just tell the churches that they were exempt, but opted instead to write about religious rights in a way that suggested that they’ve been abridged by government, Mullins responded, “I agree totally government has no rights over religion. [That]is why we put prayer back in commission meetings and is why I work with the Flagler County Faith Council. Feel free to share that with the small group that has said it does. My post is very clear as a commissioner for the people I stand with my churches and the right to pray anywhere.”

County officials said they weren’t aware of any instances of local churches being required to close or suspend ceremonies. 

At its June 1 meeting, the County Commission did not revisit the cities’ “call for unity” letter to discuss creating a policy on communication. 

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