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‘This is no longer a debate’: Florida sheriff bans deputies, visitors from wearing masks

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/13/2020 Tim Elfrink
Billy Woods wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Marion County, Fla., Sheriff Billy Woods has forbidden his deputies from wearing masks. © Marion County Sheriff's Department /Marion County Sheriff's Department Marion County, Fla., Sheriff Billy Woods has forbidden his deputies from wearing masks.

On Tuesday, as Florida set a daily record for covid-19 deaths, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods prohibited his deputies from wearing masks at work. His order, which also applies to visitors to the sheriff’s office, carves out an exception for officers in some locations, including hospitals, and when dealing with people who are high-risk or suspected of having the novel coronavirus.

In an email to the sheriff’s department shared with The Washington Post, Woods disputed the idea that masks are a consensus approach to battling the pandemic.

“We can debate and argue all day of why and why not. 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 wrote in the email, which was first reported by the Ocala Star-Banner.

A majority of epidemiologists and other health experts say face masks and social distancing are key to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has ravaged Florida. The state, which has recorded more than 542,000 cases and more than 8,600 deaths, added 277 more deaths on Tuesday; Marion County also set a record for daily deaths on Tuesday, with 13.

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Police nationwide have faced scrutiny over inconsistent use of masks by officers, even in large cities like New York and Philadelphia where face coverings are mandatory. Many large departments only suggest officers wear masks, ABC News recently found, while those that require them, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, make exceptions for incidents where masks might impede officers in the line of duty.

Woods is among the first law enforcement officials to outright ban masks for his deputies, though.

He issued the order as Marion County and its largest city, Ocala, are mired in a politically charged debate over a mandatory mask rule. The Ocala City Council passed an emergency mask order last week, but Mayor Kent Guinn (R) vetoed it, citing in part a refusal by Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham to enforce the rule.

“My chief and I have talked about it. We will never write a fine. We’re just not going to do it,” Guinn told the Sky 97.3 FM on Monday.

The city council plans to meet Wednesday to consider overriding the veto, the Star-Banner reported.

Woods, meanwhile, told his deputies on Tuesday to stop wearing masks in most cases. While officers can still mask up in areas including the courthouse and county jail, they must immediately take off the face coverings afterward. Deputies working special events are also forbidden from wearing masks, Woods said.

All visitors to sheriff’s department buildings will be asked to take off their masks in the lobby, Woods said, linking that rule to the ongoing protests against police brutality.

“In light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby,” he wrote.

The sheriff argued working mask-free hasn’t led to a spike of infections in his 900-person department. “Since the beginning of this pandemic the operation of this office has not changed and no wearing of masks has been put in place,” he said.

But as the Star-Banner reported, the local jail has seen a serious spike, with at least 200 inmates testing positive, along with 36 jail employees, including officers. A nurse at the jail has also died of covid-19.

Should anyone challenge a deputy about wearing a mask, Woods wrote, “politely and professionally tell them I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff.”

Woods, who participated in a phone conference with President Trump and other sheriffs on Tuesday, ended his missive by making it clear that he would brook no dissent.

“This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion,” he wrote. “Please keep in mind this entire pandemic is fluid and constantly changing the way things are done. However, my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of covid-19 deaths reported in Florida on Tuesday, when 277 new deaths were recorded.

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