A Florida sheriff barred deputies from wearing facial coverings in most work settings, authorities said Wednesday, even as the state continues to struggle with record-breaking coronavirus numbers.
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods insisted there's no conclusive evidence that wearing masks curbs the spread of the virus — despite explicit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines saying just that.
"Now, I can already hear the whining and just so you know I did not make this decision easily and I have weighed it out for the past 2 weeks," according to a memo Woods wrote to staff, provided to NBC News by the sheriff's office.
"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."
The policy applies to all 900 department employees, and Woods said his decision is final.
"This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion," he wrote.
Marion County, with a population of about 365,000, is in heart of Florida's Horse Country. The county seat is in Ocala, which is about 40 miles south of Gainesville.
The city of Ocala has its own police force of about 300 employees, with about one-third of them being sworn law enforcement officers.
The department, the second biggest policing agency in Marion County, has no policy explicitly mandating or barring mask use by employees — but it "encourages" officers and civilian workers to don facial coverings, an OPD spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Sheriff Woods' directive carves out a handful of settings where masks would be required, such as at hospitals, nursing homes, courts, schools, jails or a COVID-19 "address alert from dispatch."
Woods anticipates pushback from the community and told employees to walk away from anyone criticizing his measure.
"If at any time you are confronted by any individual complaining, berating you or just being a difficult individual, you will politely and professionally tell them 'I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff' and then walk away from them," the sheriff wrote.
"From that point on it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint or their question."
The policy would be in full force inside any sheriff buildings and civilians coming into that office would be barred from wearing a mask.
If that civilian doesn't want to go mask-less, he or she will be asked to exit the building and leave a cell phone number so they could be called and invited back inside when a sheriff's employee is free to meet with them.
"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," Woods wrote. "All of our lobbies have glass barriers between you and them that the virus cannot magically go thru."
The "local health department was not consulted" by Sheriff Woods before he issued his anti-mask directive, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Marion County said on Wednesday.
Asked if the state health department opposed Woods' action, the agency rep would only say: "We recommend adherence to the state surgeon general’s health advisory, and the wearing of cloth face coverings/masks when unable to practice social distancing is an important part of that."
Individual members of the Marion County Board of Commissioners did not immediately return messages seeking their comments Wednesday.
Instead, Kelli Hart, a spokeswoman for entire panel, called Woods a "constitutional officer" with "the authority to make decisions he feels are in the best interest of his staff, inmates and facility visitors."
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"The Marion County Board of County Commissioners continues to strongly encourage residents and visitors to follow all CDC recommendations, to include wearing masks when social distancing is not possible or as otherwise required," Hart said in a statement.
The mask debate has also been raging inside Ocala City Council chambers, after Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed an ordinance that requires face masks inside any business in the city.
But the council voted 4-1 on Wednesday to override the mayor's veto and make the facial coverings mandatory.