Mask mandate motions fail in special St. Johns County Commission meeting

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — St. Johns Board of County Commissioners took up the issue of whether masks should be mandated countywide amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a special meeting on Tuesday.

After listening to hours of public comment in which stakeholders phoned into a virtual meeting to make their voices heard, commissioners considered two motions related to mandating masks. Both measures failed to pass.

Commissioner Henry Dean made the first mask mandate related motion, which called for a countywide mask ordinance. The specifics of the ordinance’s implementation were to be determined.

Dean qualified his motion by expressing logistical concerns about whether enough time for public hearings had been given, exemptions for people who may not be able to wear a mask due to medical concerns, and if a mandate could be implemented and enforced effectively in St. Johns County.

“We may want to simply have a vote on whether or not we want to proceed with a mandatory face mask ordinance, and those issues I outlined,” Dean said to fellow commissioners during the meeting. “Because, frankly, if the motion fails, there’s no reason to go into great detail, and in depth, about those three major issues.”

Dean’s motion was not seconded. Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker then requested additional discussion on the matter. Commission Chair Jeb Smith replied to Blocker saying a discussion was not possible without the motion being seconded.

“I don’t have a second, so we don’t have discussion if that’s the case,” Smith said. “Alright, the motion fails.”

Blocker then made the second mask related motion, which called for St. Johns’ county administrator to mandate masks for county employees, at county controlled properties, such as recreation centers and libraries. The mandate also called for masks to be on hand and provided to members of the public who enter the properties.

The motion was seconded and voted on. It failed by a count of 3-2. Commissioners Smith, James Johns, Paul Waldron voted against the motion. Dean and Blocker voted in favor of it.

“I will not vote to implement another regulation, even on our own staff, when I heard today there is no need because there is not an overrun at the hospital,” Smith said.

Smith also expressed concerns due to needing more information to make an informed decision, and questioned whether the county would be able to enforce the measure.

“Why would we make ordinances, or laws, based on information that’s either incomplete, inaccurate, or just plain unknown, and I appreciate the candor of those who have stated in whatever form of fashion that is available,” Johns said. “Do we wear a cotton mask? Do we wear a silk mask? Do we wear a plastic mask? All of those questions need to be a part of whether this is going to be effective.”

“I don’t want to create a mandate, I don’t want to support a mandate, that does not achieve the goals intended,” Johns said.

Both of the motions’ failure to pass got varying reactions from stakeholders Action News Jax interviewed following the county’s special meeting.

“I’m disappointed that St. Johns County did not mandate masks,” said Barbara Heinlein, a St. Johns County homeowner.

Others in the county were relieved to hear a mask mandate had not been approved.

“I feel it’s restrictive, I feel especially down here in the summer months, it’s very hot to wear it,” said Jackie Booth, a local mother.

The cities of St. Augustine and Jacksonville have approved measures to mandate masks in public indoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.

As of now, there’s no mandate in Clay County, though masks are strongly encouraged. In Nassau County, no final decisions have been made, but an ordinance is under consideration.

The city of St. Augustine Beach will take up the issue of whether to mandate masks in a special meeting on Thursday.