PUNTA GORDA — After hours of comments from residents on both sides of the issue, the Punta Gorda City Council unanimously approved a new mandatory indoor mask policy for the city at today's council meeting.

The mandate accounts for indoor public places and is effective immediately but City Manager Howard Kunik told the Sun that it will take some time to put everything into place.

"This is for their own safety," said Vice Mayor Lynne Matthews. "We’re not trying to be political about this. If this ordinance saves one life or keeps a person from getting the virus, then I’m all for it."

Mayor Nancy Prafke said she didn't like the idea of telling people they have to wear masks but that she felt the mandate was in the best interest of the community.

Around 150 of the resident comments were emailed in to the meeting due to coronavirus crowd restrictions, some for and others against the mask mandate.

Punta Gorda resident Michael Hirsh was one of several who spoke in person at the meeting.

"Wearing masks is something I do for you, not something I do for me," Hirsh said. "I’m interested in protecting you and I hope in exchange that you are interested in protecting me."

Citing vaccinations for children and seat belt requirements for vehicles, Hirsh went on to say, "Sometimes you have an obligation to do something for someone else and this is certainly one of those times."

Punta Gorda resident Jesse Bennett protested outside the Council Chambers before the meeting began at 9 a.m. and spoke against the new mandate during the meeting.

"It is unconstitutional to tell people they have to wear a mask," Bennett told the Sun. "If you feel sick, don't go out in public. We were taught that as kids." 

"I'm all for choice," Bennett continued, "but to tell someone they have to (wear a mask) is not their (the government's) right."

City Attorney David Levin drafted the new mandate after examining a number of similar ordinances − or city laws − enacted by other municipalities, according to City Communications Manager Melissa Reichert.

The new ordinance requires face coverings to be worn by anyone over 2 years old at all indoor public places within the city limits.

It also requires all people preparing or serving food to wear a face covering.

The new mandate does NOT require face coverings in the following situations:

• People are observing continuous social distancing.

• The face covering causes impairment due to existing health conditions.

• It conflicts with the Americans with Disabilities Act for that person.

• Talking to someone who is hearing impaired who needs to see the mouth of the person speaking.

• Working in a business where you do not have interactions with others.

• Working in a business where the use of a face covering would hinder performance of duties.

• Exercising and still maintaining social distancing.

• Eating or drinking at a restaurant while maintaining social distancing and seated at a table or bar.

• Employed as public safety, other life safety or health care personnel.

• Obtaining a service involving the nose or face where removal of a face covering is necessary (salons, barber shops, etc.)

• Engaged in an activity where some other form of face covering is required.

The indoor mask mandate took effect upon this morning's City Council approval and will stay as such for 90 days unless repealed by the City Council prior to the expiration date, Reichert told the Sun in an email.

"If you wear a mask, you prevent spread. If you wash your hands, you prevent spread," said Dr. Ndubuisi C. Edeoga, an infectious disease specialist in Port Charlotte, at the meeting. "It’s little common things (that help stop the spread)."

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