PUNTA GORDA — Punta Gorda residents pleaded with the City Council Wednesday to extend its rule requiring indoor face coverings. And the City Council listened.
“We want to feel safe in our city and be able to go out and about when necessary,” wrote Libby and Joe Schaeffer in an email read aloud at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “We can only do that if people wear masks and social distance.”
“Obviously, the … pandemic isn’t going away,” wrote Jaquelin Whitaker in an email to the city. “We want our visitors as well as our residents to feel as safe as possible.”
The ordinance, established in July, was set to expire Nov. 6.
At Wednesday’s meeting, council members unanimously approved extending the mask mandate through April 30, 2021.
In a 4-to-1 vote, the council also approved continuing its suspension of enforcement on the rule − an order put in place during a Sept. 30 meeting. Gov. Ron DeSantis, citing a downturn in coronavirus cases, had declared in September that local officials could impose mask mandates — but they can’t enforce them by imposing fines on citizens.
But the recent surge in Florida — with 4,423 positive cases added Wednesday — has residents concerned.
“Based on the 75 or so emails we received this week, the vast majority (of our residents) are 99.9% in favor of extending the mask ordinance,” said Mayor Lynne Matthews. “I think the virus is here to stay for a while and we need to extend (the mask ordinance) through the end of (our busy) season.”
Many residents who wrote into the meeting wanted an extension through the end of the year, with others pushing for it to run through Spring 2021.
“I believe (the mask mandate) has been beneficial in keeping the amount of cases and deaths down (in the area),” wrote Pete Gaylord. “I believe it should be extended at least through the end of the year.”
Bill and Jean Ringelstein also supported keeping the mask rule in place, writing, “Do not mess with the mask rules as they now stand. The rules are working. Do not try to fix something that’s not broke — you’ll only mess it up.”
Vice Mayor Debby Carey believes face coverings are the only protection area residents have left.
“If you look at the U.S. and the hot spots (for COVID-19), those are feeder states ... those are the people that come here as snowbirds,” Carey said. “Because of our governor’s actions, we can’t ask them to quarantine so I think the mask is our last line of defense.”
If circumstances with coronavirus change in the coming months, the City Council will be able to rescind the face covering ordinance.
In the meantime, they plan on pushing education of the benefits of wearing masks.
“I’d like to see more education reminding businesses that we still have this ordinance in place and that they have the ability to enforce it,” Matthews said. “In the various places I have been, I see a lot of people walking around with masks on.”