Brevard County Commission Chairman Bryan Lober has been closely monitoring the COVID-19 case numbers and trends for months, and has sought out the opinions of medical experts.
By Friday evening, he had seen and heard enough. News 6 partner Florida Today reports Lober announced that he is proposing that individuals be required to wear face coverings while in local businesses, except for when they are eating or exercising, until either the local coronavirus state of emergency ends or the policy is modified by the County Commission.
Lober's proposal will be considered by the County Commission during a special meeting that begins at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Brevard County Government Center in Viera.
Lober said his tipping point was his concern that there might be a shortage of health care workers by August because a number of them would be contracting COVID-19 during next six weeks.
“For the first time since this crisis began, we are facing mounting hospital personnel shortages — largely on account of these front-line workers becoming infected with COVID-19 and unable to return to work while potentially infectious,” Lober said in announcing his proposal. “While we are not at immediate risk of running out of medical personnel, should we sit idly without taking necessary action, we are at risk of this potentially happening in four to six weeks.”
Saturday was the fourth straight day of Brevard seeing triple-digit growth in coronavirus cases. On Saturday, the county broke a record in number of new cases, with 250 cases, for a total of 1,547 since the pandemic began.
Lober said the five-member County Commission — which is all-Republican — should avoid having his proposal become entwined in politics.
"Governmental response to this virus must not be contorted into a partisan political issue, as it will infect Democrats and Republicans alike," Lober said. "Ensuring public health and safety is one of the core obligations every government has to its citizens — even when so doing may prove unpopular or politically costly."
He said decisions on “necessary governmental action must be based upon science, data and expert epidemiological opinion, not upon lay opinion or political pressure.”
Among county commissioners, Lober has sometimes found himself alone in pushing for more stringent rules designed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, including related to temporary closing of beaches and stricter controls on the occupancy levels of businesses.
He is the first commissioner to propose a mask-wearing policy. The other commissioners have deferred to state regulations and executive orders, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has been opposed to mandating mask-wearing.
Some other Florida counties and cities have instituted mask-wearing mandates, including neighboring Orange County.
Lober sees a Brevard County policy mandating the wearing of face masks as being “the least restrictive method of preventing what could become a catastrophic situation.”
"One alternative to mandating face coverings would be to shut down local businesses, something which is avoidable if we act soon," Lober said. "The other alternative is that we allow continued increasing infection of hospital workers and face the very real risk of unavailability of medical care for those who need it."
Lober said he made his decision to push for a mask policy after speaking with emergency medicine physicians.
"It is clear we must act to ensure we do not run into a situation where demand for emergency medical services may outpace availability of those critical services," Lober said.
Lober said that county "cannot, under any circumstances, allow local hospitals to run dangerously low on ventilators, hospital beds, gloves, face masks or trained personnel."
Lober said that while the county is not currently at risk of depleting supplies to unsafe levels, he believes the County Commission needs to take "preemptive preventative action" to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, through the mask policy.
In a statement that accompanied Lober’s announcement, Dr. Jeffrey Stalnaker, Health First’s chief physician executive, said: “Health First believes a universal masking policy will help slow the spread of this terrible virus, and protect the health of your loved ones and neighbors. Wearing masks will also preserve our ability to treat patients who are ill and safeguard the health of our medical professionals on the front lines providing care.”
Lober said, from the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, "I have constantly maintained the position that we must not allow our local health care facilities to face the risk of being overrun. To that end, I have been in ongoing and regular contact with hospital administrators and managing physicians with the major health care systems countywide, along with Florida Department of Health officials and epidemiological staff."
Lober said that, while Brevard County "has been touted by Gov. DeSantis and others as a model for the proper handling of COVID-19, we must not allow our earlier successes to make us complacent or blind to impending peril."
Lober said "there is little question" that that a mask policy "is constitutional, as more severe restrictions have been held lawful, even outside of the context of a pandemic."
However, Matt Nye, a Tea Party activist and chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a national organization that works to protect constitutional rights, on Saturday created a GoFundMe page "so we can file suit against the county, should they move forward with the mask ordinance."
Lober generally wears a face mask when out in a public setting, except during County Commission meetings, at which the commissioners are socially distanced from one another.
“Wearing a face mask does wonders in preventing those who may be asymptomatic, but shedding the virus, from infecting others — many of whom may fall in one or more high-risk categories,” Lober said, in discussing the benefits of people wearing them. “If both such individuals wear face masks, data suggests the risk of infection drops exponentially.”
Tuesday’s special meeting of the County Commission will be in two locations of inside Building C at the Government Center, 2725 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera, as a way to maintain social distancing.
Members of the public can watch the meeting and deliver public comment via videoconferencing from the County Commission chambers on the first floor. The county commissioners will be in the Florida Room on the third floor of the building.
The meeting agenda also will include discussion of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money that has been allocated as part of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioners also will discuss proposed CARES Act funding for economic support programs for local businesses.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bydaveberman