WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Is Palm Beach County's face mask mandate effective anymore?
That's what county commissioners debated at length on Tuesday morning ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releasing new recommendations regarding facial coverings in public.
Palm Beach County's ordinance, which is in place until at least May 18, requires people to wear face masks inside businesses, government buildings, "public places where social distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines is not possible or not being practiced," as well as Palm Tran transit services.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay expressed her frustrations on Tuesday, saying she's seen images from several public events and fundraisers -- including a surprise visit by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the newly opened Delray Beach Market over the weekend -- in which people have blatantly ignored the county's mask mandate.
"I'm looking at all these pictures and nobody is wearing a mask," McKinlay said. "If we can't enforce this and we can't abide by it, what purpose are we serving?"
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Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said she believes the mandate is still effective and serving its purpose, pointing to our stagnant flu season as a good example of the importance of wearing masks.
"This year's flu has been almost negligible. Why? Because people have been busy either wearing masks, washing hands, staying away, avoiding crowded spaces. Everything that promotes not spreading a virus," Alonso said.
The health director added that Palm Beach County experienced waves of new COVID-19 cases over the past year as sectors of the economy reopened, and she fears the same thing will happen if the mask mandate is lifted too soon.
"I think we're leading by example. There's a reason that our numbers in Palm Beach County are much better than the counties to the south of us," Alonso said. "I think that we've been doing the right thing for the county and for the public health of this community."
Under the new CDC facial covering guidelines released on Tuesday, federal health officials said fully vaccinated people can go outdoors without masks, except in crowded settings.
In addition, vaccinated or not, people don't have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike, or run alone or with members of their household. They can also go maskless in small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people.
However, the CDC still recommends face coverings at indoor public places like hair salons, restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and movie theaters, as well as concerts and sporting events.
Ahead of that announcement, Palm Beach County commissioners agreed to give Mayor Dave Kerner and County Administrator Verdenia Baker the authority to automatically adjust the county's mask order to follow the new CDC guidelines.
"We have adhered to the CDC. We're not changing. It's not my intent to change," Baker said. "We're taking all of that into consideration, and we will make the appropriate adjustments when we get that data."
Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth said the mandate was first put into place last year when there was no COVID-19 vaccine and Palm Beach County was gradually restoring activities and reopening businesses and schools while trying to keep the public as safe as possible.
But nearly five months into 2021 and with the coronavirus vaccine in strong supply, Weinroth said we're now in a "much different position."
"At some point, even with the virus in the background, we are gonna have to say that people are gonna be able to make their own decisions on if they want to wear a mask or not," Weinroth said.
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The vice mayor added that even when Palm Beach County's mask mandate is lifted outright, facial coverings may still be required in certain places or situations.
"People have a right to make decisions on their own," Weinroth said. "At some point, I think we have to release our grip on our residents and tell them, if you want to wear a mask, great. If you don't want to wear a mask, do what is right for you and your family."