Residents broke the county's rule requiring masks in the county's Government Services Building, and refused to comply when told to mask up or leave.
Deputies guided the entire audience out of a crowded County Commission meeting Sept. 9 after a small group of attendees — there to call for the firing of local health department officials — refused to comply with the building's mask requirement, disrupting the meeting with shouts and prompting a vulgar spat at the commission dais.
After the meeting restarted, a handful of people from the anti-mask group spoke to argue for the dismissal of Florida Department of Health-Flagler Health Officer Bob Snyder and Medical Director Dr. Stephen Bickel, accusing the men of "fear-mongering" and at times blaming them for decisions which they had no part in, such as business closures that had been required by the state, not the county.
When the group first filed into the commission chambers without masks, after passing through the building's front doors where signs are posted stating that masks are required, Chairman David Sullivan's tone was conciliatory.
"We’ve got over 50 people in this room, and we’re all going to have to have masks on unless you’re speaking," Sullivan told the crowd. "So if you don’t have a mask on, either put one on or leave, get a mask, and then come back. So I’ll wait til that happens."
The group didn't move and didn't mask. Sullivan asked them again, twice, and again, none compiled.
Sheriff Rick Staly walked over and addressed the crowd.
Establishments, government buildings included, have the right to set guidelines on masks and to tell people to leave if they won't comply. When someone refuses to leave after being told to do so, they're trespassing — and can be escorted out by law enforcement, if needed, and charged if they resist.
"If you want to push it to the limits, there are additional actions we can take," Sullivan warned. "I’m trying to be as cooperative as possible, letting you know what the story is. I don’t know what else to do except say I’m not going to start the meeting until everybody has a mask on."
Commissioner Joe Mullins said he wanted to weigh in. Sullivan and Commissioner Greg Hansen told him not to, because the meeting hadn't officially started yet.
"I’m weighing in as a citizen. So you all are gonna tell me I can’t as a citizen? Then I’ll walk out as with them as well," Mullins said.
Other commissioners told him to go ahead.
The maskless among the audience applauded, and some began shouting.
"You guys are way overstepping your boundaries," one yelled. "This is America, land of the free!"
Sullivan called for the meeting to adjourn and then reconvene in 15 minutes, and deputies began herding the audience out of the building.
Mullins walked over to Hansen, jabbed a finger toward him, and — in comments that were picked up by a microphone and became a topic of conversation in the crowd — raised his voice and called Hansen a "fat son of a b----" before walking off as a deputy approached.
Mullins apologized to Hansen shortly before the meeting resumed, saying he'd misspoken.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT HEALTH DEPARTMENT
About 20 minutes after meeting attendees were guided out of the commission chambers by deputies, they were allowed back in: The unmasked were still unmasked, but were allowed to sit in the front of the room, spaced every other seat.
Sullivan rearranged the meeting schedule to allow them to speak first, with the requirement that they'd leave after they'd said what they wanted to say.
Resident Mark Phillips was first. Phillips stated a series of inaccuracies while accusing health department officials Dr. Stephen Bickel and Bob Snyder of spreading false information.
"Since the beginning of COVID, the situation has been grossly mishandled, in my opinion," Phillips said. "Beaches were closed against the directives of the state health department, parks were closed against the directives of the state health department, and businesses were shut down which is a violation of our constitution."
Phillips' assertions were incorrect.
The county's park closures did not contravene state directives: The state allowed counties and cities to decide on their own whether or not to close beaches and parks according to local conditions. (State parks also closed around Florida, and in some cases stayed closed longer than Flagler's.)
Business restrictions, meanwhile, occurred at the direction of the state government, not local officials. They did not violate the Constitution, which allows officials broad latitude during emergencies.
Phillips continued, "There is enough on its face to call for all elected officials that went along with these unlawful measures to be voted out."
He said that people have a "one in 19 million" chance of dying of COVID. (Using U.S. mortality numbers of about 190,000 COVID-19 deaths in a total population of about 330,250,000, the rate has been approximately one death per 1,738 people this year.)
Not citing sources, Phillips claimed dramatic increases in overdoses, suicides, domestic abuse and alcohol abuse while "our health department officials seem to be focused on mask mandates and pushing false health information to the public."
He said masks don't work because "a piece of cloth or a mask on the face to this virus is like a chainlink fence trying to stop a fly."
Although it is true that virus particles themselves are smaller than the gaps between cloth mask fibers, the claim that this renders masks useless misconstrues how masks work: Virus particles are transmitted not on their own, but, rather, on water droplets that are much larger — that's what masks are intended to block, and peer-reviewed research has shown that, worn properly, they do so.
"This country is sick right now, and it’s from socialism, communism and Marxism raising its ugly face and I’ll be damned if its coming here to Flagler County," Phillips continued. "... I am calling for the resignation of Stephen Bickel and Robert Snyder. They are recklessly spreading false information that is giving some a false sense of security while giving others extreme anxiety."
Phillips was followed by Lisa Perkins, who noted that an executive order from the governor had defined recreational activities such as walking, hiking, biking and fishing as "essential activities."
"However, based on their [Bickel's and Snyder's] advisement, our parks, our beaches our fishing pier and our trails were all shut down, leaving us without anywhere to conduct the essential activities," she said.
Flagler County, acting on the advice of both health department and county emergency management staff, closed most of its parks and limited beach access on March 23, but began reopening them a few weeks later. County facilities that were closed due to COVID-19 are now open again.
Perkins was correct that an executive order defined certain recreational activities as essential. However, the order did not require that local governments allow those activities to proceed at any time and place and in any situation.
Perkins also held Bickel and Snyder responsible for a County Commission proclamation that urged residents to wear masks.
The nonbinding proclamation, she said, had created "undue burdens, confusion, division and conflict in our community" as mask-wearers shamed and yelled at non-mask-wearers.
Another resident, Darlene Maria Darcey, said that when lockdowns began, people had been told the restrictions would be for two weeks to a month, to keep hospitals from being overrun.
"We're seven months later, with no end in sight," she said.
She blamed "constant fear-mongering" from Bickel and Snyder, calling them "unelected voices."
Darcey added that her daughter is a surgeon and had told her to ditch the mask and make sure to exercise, drink enough water, maintain good hygiene, and socialize because it's good for mental health.
"So, what did our elected officials do?" she said, raising her voice. "They shut down our pier! They shut down the boardwalk! They shut down the parks and the skate parks and the playgrounds for the children. And here we are almost seven months later and we're fighting to get our children into school. Are we following these guidelines?"
The facilities Darcey mentioned, schools included, have reopened.
COMMISSIONERS BACK HEALTH DEPARTMENT
Snyder, speaking a few minutes later after the anti-mask residents had left the room, opted to thank his staff for their dedication, and then mostly let the statistics do the talking.
"A National Geographic article from a week ago that tracks positive cases and deaths by each county and state in the nation," he said, "showed that on a per capita basis, as measured by cases per 10,000 people, Flagler County has the lowest case rate in the state, at 125.1 per 10,000 people, and the third lowest death rate per 100,000 people at 15."
He added, "This is a remarkable outcome, and one such as this does not occur by accident. Absolutely not! It takes our entire community of 113,000 to make this happen. Just about everyone has played a role in this response. This good outcome takes all of us to achieve, including every resident who complies with commonsense, simple, inexpensive acts like mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding large crowds; businesses and restaurants who ended up supporting mask-wearing campaigns like the county’s Pledge to Prevent, and the resolutions passed by our three major cities. You know, and probably a little bit of luck is thrown in there too, to have the lowest case rate of COVID in the state."
Bickel, Snyder noted, had espoused the connection between mitigating the virus and being able to reopen the economy and avoid lockdowns.
Sullivan thanked Snyder for his remarks, and said that Snyder and Bickel are "doing a great job."
Hansen and Commissioner Charlie Ericksen agreed.
Mullins also commended them.
"Bob, I want to thank you guys for the work you’re doing over at the health department; you all are doing a phenomenal job," Mullins said.
He added, "I'm fully supportive with you guys; I want to make that publicly stated. If me wearing a mask will save someone else, then I don't have a selfish bone in my body to not do that, and that's what we need to do as a community."
Commissioner Donald O'Brien expressed his gratitude for the health department and noted how many services it provides that have nothing to do with the pandemic, including health care for school children and the indigent.
"It's comprehensive, and it affects the entire community," O'Brien said. "It's a sad day when we have to politicize the department of health."