Venice City Council adopts mask ordinance

Beverly and John Larson walk up Venice Avenue on Tuesday afternoon. The Venice couple said they supported the new rule from the Venice City Council dictating a new mask ordinance.

VENICE — The full City Council finally took a vote on a city ordinance mandating the wearing of masks in Venice, adopting it on a 4-3 vote.

The ordinance went into effect immediately. It applies, with exceptions, to everyone within the city limits for the next 30 days.

The swing vote was Council Member Helen Moore, who had previously voted for a resolution supporting the wearing of masks and for the approval of an emergency ordinance requiring it but against continuing to pursue it after the emergency attempt failed.

An ordinance can be adopted on an emergency basis on one reading rather than two if five City Council members approve. Only five members were present at the Aug. 3 special meeting, however, and Vice Mayor Chuck Newsom voted against it, so it failed.

Then, Council Member Rich Cautero moved to vote on the ordinance again, as the first of two readings required under the city’s standard approval procedure.

It passed 3-2, with Moore and Newsom voting against. Moore said that the failure of the ordinance on an emergency basis should have been the end of the matter.

With only Mayor Ron Feinsod and Council members Rich Cautero and Mitzie Fiedler solidly behind the ordinance, it appeared that the four votes necessary for adoption on second reading might be hard to get.

The absent Council members, Joe Neunder and Nick Pachota, were already on record as likely “no” votes going into Tuesday’s meeting.

And during discussion of the ordinance, Moore sounded as though she wouldn’t support it, pointing out its numerous exceptions to the requirement that a mask be worn.

She also said that people who might be expecting to see everyone wearing masks downtown would be disappointed because walking is considered exercise — another exception.

But just before the vote was taken, she said that a letter from officials at Sarasota Memorial Hospital — including the doctor who diagnosed the first case of COVID-19 in the state — had been “impactful,” and joined Feinsod, Cautero and Fiedler in voting to adopt the ordinance.

Feinsod and Cautero had cited the letter as well.

The authors stated that masks and social distancing have been reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus and urged that diligence be maintained as schools open and “normal” flu season approaches.

“We strongly support local mask ordinances and urge the Venice City Council to require cloth masks be worn in public places during these uncertain times,” they wrote. “We know it’s not easy, but it’s critical to minimize the spread of the virus in our region.”

Newsom, Neunder and Pachota weren’t persuaded.

Pachota, who has been on assignment for several months with the Central Florida Disaster Medical Coalition, said he supports wearing a mask but not making it mandatory.

“I don’t have to have a law to make me wear a mask,” he said.

He, too, questioned the number of exceptions in the ordinance.

Most people supporting it haven’t read it, he said, and are surprised when he tells them it doesn’t actually apply in the schools — which have their own mask mandate — or in bars that are allowed to be open, because a mask isn’t required when eating or drinking.

He also wondered how the city would be able to tell, after 30 days, whether the ordinance had had a positive impact.

Both he and Neunder noted that the number of cases locally has been declining, and Neunder expressed concern about enforcement, including the risk of confrontations between masked and nonmasked people.

And he said the maximum fine — up to $500 for a violation if the person cited contests it — is way too high.

Later in the meeting, the Council adopted an ordinance creating a special magistrate position. Once hired, the magistrate would preside over appeals of mask citations, as well as other code enforcement cases.

The stated intent of the ordinance, however, is “to seek voluntary compliance with the provisions contained herein and to educate and warn of the dangers of non-compliance,” with a fine as the last resort.

The city of Sarasota and the town of Longboat Key, whose ordinances served as a model for Venice’s, reportedly have yet to levy a fine for a mask violation.

Sarasota Memorial urged the adoption of those ordinances as well.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital CEO David Verinder lauded the City Council’s action Tuesday afternoon.

“We commend the city of Venice for passing a mask ordinance and prioritizing the health and well-being of our community,” he said via email. “It will take months, perhaps even years, to understand the lasting impact this pandemic has on our health and way of life. But what is certain is that the safety precautions each of us takes today helps protect everyone living on the Suncoast.”

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