VENICE — After three failed attempts to get a mandatory mask ordinance passed in Venice, city leaders have a fourth meeting on the subject in the works.
The chance of a mask ordinance being adopted by the Venice City Council at a 1 p.m. Wednesday meeting may hinge on the exceptions they adopt, and who enforces it.
Sarasota and Punta Gorda, which adopted emergency mask orders in July, have taken different paths.
Sarasota has placed enforcement firmly in the hands of code enforcement, leaving police at arm’s length when it comes to enforcement.
In Punta Gorda, police are fielding complaints about not wearing masks.
Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said county officials are asking for trouble if it passes such an ordinance and expect deputies to enforce it at a time when ongoing protests are calling to defund law enforcement.
Sarasota County Commissioners have, so far, resisted such an ordinance.
“It’s easy to pass an ordinance. It’s something else entirely to enforce it,” Knight said Friday. “We want law enforcement to solve all our problems — mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse. This is a health issue.”
He suggested other ways to help it happen.
“Why don’t they start an ambassador program where volunteers go out and interact with people on the street, and encourage them to wear masks?”
Making it even harder to enforce are the wide ranging exceptions placed into the ordinances in Sarasota and Punta Gorda.
Both ordinances provide a list of exceptions. As long as you are maintaining the Centers for Disease Control’s 6-feet-apart social distance recommendation, masks aren’t required in Punta Gorda or Sarasota.
Another exception in both ordinances is for people whose compliance would be detrimental to their health, safety or welfare. They’re not required to carry proof of health issues, under the ordinances.
“We won’t be asking people what their health problem is,” Punta Gorda Police Chief Davis said. “If they claim a health exception, that’s the end of it.”
The ordinances either require a police or code enforcement officer to witness a violation to cite someone as a civil offense.
Punta Gorda has yet to write a citation. Passed on July 8, the mask law has resulted in 32 calls complaining about people not wearing masks as of July 16.
“It’s a matter of education,” Davis said. “We had one call before the City Council meeting (where the ordinance was adopted) was concluded. By the time our officers arrive, the people involved have usually left the scene. We show up and everyone’s in compliance. We advise the complainant that we have to witness the violation, and that people who are maintaining social distancing are not violating the mask ordinance. Once it’s explained, they’re usually satisfied.”
Davis had police and Code Enforcement visit every business in the city to hand out small posters about the ordinance, which business owners can place on entryway doors. But they aren’t required to under the ordinance.
”Most do,” Davis said. “But they have the right not to.”
Sarasota’s mask ordinance applies to both indoors and outdoors, while Punta Gorda’s ordinance only applies indoors, otherwise their list of exceptions are quite similar.
Both provide exceptions for people in residences or homes or hotel rooms; people eating or drinking at a restaurant — although servers must wear protection; both allow homemade masks; both have sunset provisions. Sarasota’s emergency ordinance, adopted July 1, expires in 60 days unless additional action is taken; Punta Gorda’s, adopted July 8, expires after 90 days.
Both ordinances grant code enforcement and police the ability to issue citations, and a warning for a first offense; both provide fines — in Sarasota the penalty is up to $500, but is reduced to $50 if the citation isn’t contested; in Punta Gorda, it’s $25 a first offense, $100 for second offense and $250 for each offense thereafter.
Both provide exceptions for customers of dentists or hair dressers and others who work on the facial area; both provide an exception for people who do not have interactions with other people at their place of employment.
Children under 2 are exempt under both ordinances. Sarasota’s ordinance leaves it to the discretion of a parent, guardian or accompanying adult whether a person under the age if 18 must wear a mask.
Meanwhile, Venice has its City Attorney Kelly Fernandez, Police Chief Tom Mattmuller, Fire Chief Shawn Carvey and City Manager Ed Lavallee working on a draft emergency ordinance, should the City Council change its mind and adopt a mandatory mask rule.
“We plan to educate and encourage,” Mattmuller said. “At this particular moment, city staff is working toward a civil citation. Therefore, an appeal process must be in place before enforcement action will occur.”
Knight says he’s directed his staff to follow the city of Sarasota ordinance since some his deputies are stationed there — but deputies will not be enforcing any municipality’s mask ordinance.
“I’m not sure we could legally do so without infringing on someone’s civil rights,” he said.
He said the country is “at a flashpoint” with law enforcement receiving more orders and obstacles.
“There are protests going on focused on law enforcement. You’re going to have all the people who wear masks calling law enforcement on the people who don’t, and creating a snitch society. Do we want the 22-year-old deputy, with 18 months on the force, telling people to wear a mask, or out come the handcuffs? Is law enforcement the best governmental body to inspire people to wear masks?” Knight asked.
Another ordinance would create more polarization, he said.
“We’re not opposed to wearing masks, but politicians need to be very thoughtful and include their police department in preliminary discussions before they do this because there will be unintended consequences,” Knight said.