Even as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked to record levels in his county, a Florida sheriff isn’t letting his officers wear a mask while on duty.
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods of Ocala, Florida, a traditionally red district of just over 60,000 people, told his department Monday that he wants officers to ignore CDC recommendations about PPE to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to an internal email obtained by the Ocala Star-Banner. He says his mandate is meant to prevent stifled communication and identification when officers are interacting with citizens.
In the email, Woods, a Republican, outright dismisses the widely accepted COVID-19 prevention measure, citing non-specific conflicting reports that say otherwise.
“We can debate and argue all day of why and why not,” Woods wrote. “The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”
Woods advised his 900 employees to tell people it’s the sheriff’s mandate if asked why they aren’t wearing a mask in public.
“From that point on, it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint, or their question,” he says in the letter.
In the U.S., many local departments have been criticized for their loose guidelines concerning face masks and social distancing. At the height of Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, for example, many people pointed out that officers were not taking steps to reduce the spread.
Woods is the first law enforcement official in the country to outright ban face masks, according to the Washington Post.
“Please keep in mind this entire pandemic is fluid and constantly changing the way things are done,” the sheriff wrote. “However, my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”
Woods’ email was sent the same day Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed the City Council’s emergency ordinance to instate a mask mandate. A day later, Marion County set a new record for most deaths in a single Florida county with 13 deaths. In recent weeks, the Marion County Jail has at least 43 positive cases of coronavirus crop up among its workers. At least 200 inmates have also contracted the virus.
The city council plans to meet Wednesday to override Guinn’s decision.
According to the sheriff, there will be some exceptions to the rule. Officers working in schools, courts, jails or hospitals will be allowed to wear PPE. However, when these officers are giving commands or orders, they are expected to remove the covering in order to speak clearly to citizens.
Florida has quickly become the new epicenter for the virus in the U.S. for the number of coronavirus-related deaths in a state. The state leads in the number of deaths, with 8,600; on Tuesday alone, they recorded a total of 277 deaths. Florida trails only Georgia for the highest number of cases in the U.S., with nearly 543,000.
Cover: Bike riders ride past a "Mask Up Miami Beach," sign, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Miami Beach. Florida added at least 276 fatalities to its coronavirus death toll on Tuesday, a new state record. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)