Local cities have called on county elected officials to defer to staff experts on emergency measures. But should elected officials not be able to speak out publicly against staff decisions with which they disagree?
On May 27, Florida Department of Health-Flagler Administrator Bob Snyder and Medical Director Stephen Bickel spoke during Palm Coast’s Virtual Town Hall to urge people to protect others from COVID-19 by wearing masks.
A few days later, Flagler County commissioners at a June 1 commission meeting undermined that advice.
"When we make decisions, it's not in a vacuum. I consider my 89 year old mother, my great niece who just had open heart surgery, a firefighter that just had a baby, and the many of our firefighters, our people, that are on this front line dealing with this crisis all the while we are still criticized by some for actions we take."
— JERRY FORTE, Palm Coast fire chief, on how city staff determine policies about COVID-19 safety
“Wearing a mask — you know, there’s half the medical community out there says that’s bulls---, you shouldn’t be wearing a mask,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “I think we’re at the point where we have to treat people as adults and human beings, and if you’re worried, stay home. If you’re worried, wear a mask. Otherwise, go about your business.”
“If you fear, stay home,” Commissioner Joe Mullins said. “Nobody’s making anybody come out.”
Health officials have emphasized that the purpose of wearing a cloth mask isn’t primarily to protect the wearer. Instead, it’s to protect other people — for instance, grocery store clerks who interact with hundreds of people a day — from the mask wearer in case the wearer is ill and shedding the virus but doesn’t know it. The mask is intended to help contain virus particles emitted from the mask wearer’s mouth and nose.
The commissioners’ comments followed remarks by Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron about the contradictory advice that’s come from the CDC and various health officials who’d initially discouraged mask wearing before later changing course and encouraging it. Cameron noted that the latest change in direction appeared to be an acknowledgment that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors among people who are social-distancing.
Even so, he noted, “The experts are still more expert than we are.”
WHAT TO REOPEN, WHEN?
Conflict about how elected officials should address the public during COVID-19 has permeated the crisis since it began, as elected officials sometimes disagreed with each other or with health or emergency management staff on what should be closed or reopened, and when.
“There’s half the medical community out there says that’s bulls---, you shouldn’t be wearing a mask. I think we’re at the point where we have to treat people as adults and human beings, and if you’re worried, stay home. If you’re worried, wear a mask. Otherwise, go about your business.”
GREG HANSEN, county commissioner
As county and city of Flagler Beach staff urged people to stay off the beach during the local beach closure, Mullins, on his Facebook page, posted repeatedly that he thought the beach, boardwalks and nearby parking should be open and that Fourth of July fireworks should not be canceled — at some points trading sharp words with Flagler Beach city commissioners.
“God’s sunlight is the enemy of corona!” he wrote in a post on April 24. “We need to open our beaches, parks, trails. (Especially dog parks they deserve to get out.). OUR HOMES ARE NOT OUR PRISON CELLS.”
On Facebook, Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte wrote a post responding to comments like those Mullins had posted.
“Many of you are blaming the ‘government’ for talking away your freedoms and limiting your constitutional rights,” Forte wrote. “Folks, I am that government and we are making the best decisions for the greater good of all who will be affected. When we make decisions, it’s not in a vacuum. I consider my 89 year old mother, my great niece who just had open heart surgery, a firefighter that just had a baby, and the many of our firefighters, our people, that are on this front line dealing with this crisis all the while we are still criticized by some for action we take. Please follow CDC and Department of Health recommendations.”
THE ‘CALL FOR UNITY’
By mid-May, leaders in Palm Coast and other local cities decided that competing messages being spread by elected officials and emergency staff were a problem.
They drafted a “call for unity” letter, appealing to the county to maintain unity in public communication during emergencies.
The letter, noting how fast information travels on social media, calls for officials to act responsibly when conveying information, and adds, “We appoint leaders who in turn hire the professionals to perform the most difficult task of public service: protecting lives. We cannot stand at a podium, say one thing and then reverse the intent of our subject matter experts by pushing contrary agendas.”
It was signed by the mayors of Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, Beverly Beach and Marineland, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Flagler County, Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte, Flagler County Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord, the city managers of Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach, and the Flagler County administrator.
When the letter was presented to the Flagler County Commission at the commission’s May 18 meeting, most commissioners hadn’t yet read it. Mullins said he had — but that he was confused, because he’d thought they were working together.
Commissioner Greg Hansen noted that the letter seemed to point out a problem. “I would like to go one step further and ask … why’d they feel the need to write that?” he said. County Administrator Jerry Cameron said he didn’t know the letter’s origin, but didn’t see it as problematic.
The commission voted unanimously to sign it, but commissions Donald O’Brien and David Sullivan pointed out a potential issue: As officials elected to represent residents, they did not want to hand over their decision making power to unelected staff members.
The letter calls for a “clear adopted policy that will provide the opportunity for our subject matter experts to take decisive and credible actions within the adopted context of any particular incident.”
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Mullins has taken up a new cause on Facebook: posting that churches should be able to reopen, that government doesn’t have rights over religion and that Flagler will stand up for religious freedom.
“This is the true battle about re opening Churches,” he wrote. “Flagler is a strong a Christian County and will stand for its Religious Freedoms. We will fight hard for you!”
In other instances, he wrote, “I am calling for all Flagler County Churches to safely reopen! ... In no way does Government have any rights over religion,” and, “If parks can open safely, Churches are fine. We need to support the safe opening of our Flagler County Churches.”
Some residents, writing in the comments, cheered him for defending religious freedom.
But others pointed out a problem with his argument: Churches in Florida have not been required to close due to COVID-19. In fact, houses of worship were specifically exempted by the governor, via an executive order, from restrictions that would affect their ceremonies.
Asked if he knew of any instances of local churches being ordered to close — and, if not, what his comments were referring to — Mullins wrote to a reporter, “Nowhere do I say we closed them. I have been told some are assuming that the 10 or less gatherings imply [sic] to them. I am asking for pastors to open and to lead by faith not fear and that they have my full support to open despite the fear mongers.”
Asked why he didn’t just tell the churches that they were exempt, but opted instead to write about religious rights in a way that suggested that they’ve been abridged by government, Mullins responded, “I agree totally government has no rights over religion. [That]is why we put prayer back in commission meetings and is why I work with the Flagler County Faith Council. Feel free to share that with the small group that has said it does. My post is very clear as a commissioner for the people I stand with my churches and the right to pray anywhere.”
County officials said they weren’t aware of any instances of local churches being required to close or suspend ceremonies.
At its June 1 meeting, the County Commission did not revisit the cities’ “call for unity” letter to discuss creating a policy on communication.