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Brent Batten: Collier mask mandate headed to the sunset with barely a whimper

Brent Batten
Naples Daily News

Did you just see that?

I could be mistaken, but it looks to me like Collier County’s mask mandate has been sentenced to a quiet demise.

In what appears to be a stunning miscalculation by the mandate’s two strongest proponents on the Collier County Commission, Tuesday’s customary update on the status of COVID-19 and the efforts to fight it came and went with no vote to extend the mandate.

The board’s order for people to wear masks in most indoor public settings is set to expire on Oct. 22. The commissioners aren’t scheduled to meet again until Oct. 27.

So unless a special meeting is called – and the opportunity presented itself Tuesday with no takers – the mandate, possibly the most divisive issue ever to appear before the board, will go meekly away, at least for a time.

Brent Batten

As opposed to the hours-long debates that accompanied the initial rejection of the mandate, its eventual passage and then its extension, Tuesday’s action — or more precisely inaction — took about 45 minutes.

It began routinely enough with health department officials updating the commission on the latest trends and number of cases.

Infused therein were arguments for keeping the mandate in place.

Don’t be swayed by the graphs that show the curves in Lee and Polk counties, without a mandate, are almost identical to those of Collier and other counties with a mandate, said John Drew, organizational planning and development program consultant for the Florida Department of Health in Collier County. 

From earlier:Despite DeSantis' rollback of coronavirus restrictions, Southwest Florida mask mandates to stay

There are many “confounding factors” that should also be weighed, including demographics, travel between counties and the mask policies of large employers and retailers in those counties, he said.

Three doctors spoke, all suggesting that the mask mandate should remain.

Two residents spoke against its continuation.

At one point, commission Chairman Burt Saunders noted that an extension of the mandate was not on Tuesday’s agenda and wouldn’t be voted on.

He said that vote would come at another meeting.

Then the realization hit. There is no other meeting set before Oct. 22.

More:Collier Commission extends county's mask mandate until Oct. 22

Saunders, normally as sharp a character as you’ll meet, was confused.

He was sure, he said, the mandate was set to expire on Oct. 27, the date of the commission’s next regular meeting, or maybe Oct. 29.

Commissioner Andy Solis, the other consistent “yes” vote for the mandate and no slouch in the sharp department, also thought Oct. 27 had been designated as the expiration date.

No, County Manager Leo Ochs assured them, it’s Oct. 22.

Well, what to do?

Legally, the commissioners could have voted then and there to extend the mask ordinance even if for a few days to get to Oct. 27, County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow said.

But with the item not on the agenda and the public not turning out in droves to speak for and against it that would have been a bad move, politically

A special meeting could be called. But there was little enthusiasm among board members to engage in another extended debate.

“Should we schedule something to have a decision made at the time that it expires?” Solis asked he colleagues. He was met with silence.

“The question becomes, do we want to do anything with this mask order?” Saunders said. “And if we want to just let it expire, then we don’t have to do anything.”

Commissioners, who use a button attached to a light to signal when they want to speak, sat mute.

“If there’s a desire to set a special meeting, someone can make a motion to do that,” Saunders said, then paused in silence. “I don’t see anybody’s light lit up so let’s move on,” he concluded.

With that, barring a request for a special meeting, the mandate goes away in a week.

Proponents of the mandate appear set for disappointment, but the issue isn’t necessarily dead.

Klatzkow said the commission chairman can call a special meeting at any time, or a majority of commissioners communicating through the county manager can call one. As of Wednesday afternoon no request had been made.

Stores and other offices could continue the policy of requiring masks inside regardless of whether there’s a government order.

Or, as Dr. David Lindner of NCH suggested, the order could expire but be reinstated if cases rise above a certain threshold.

And maybe, just maybe, enough people associate wearing a mask with the reduction in cases and will continue to do so even without the mandate.

Saunders said Wednesday he believes the governor's order suspending fines for mask mandates made Collier's order ineffective. 

In any case county commissioners aren’t eager to hear the pros and cons laid out in another marathon meeting. They said as much by not saying anything Tuesday.

(Connect with Brent Batten at brent.batten@naplesnews.com.)