Florida sheriff forbids staff, visitors from wearing masks

eranicle/iStockBy ELLA TORRES, ABC News

(MARION COUNTY, Fla.) — A Florida sheriff has banned his employees and anyone visiting his offices from wearing a mask during the pandemic — a move that is sure to cause controversy as studies have shown masks reduce the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods wrote in an email on Aug. 11 to employees that some exceptions will be made, including at courthouses, jails, schools and hospitals. But “masks will not be worn” by on-duty employees at any other time, he said.

Woods went on in the email, which was obtained by ABC News, to say that any person who walks into “any one of our lobbies (which includes the main office and all district offices) that is wearing a mask will be asked to remove it.”

“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. … This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion,” he wrote.

Woods said for as many health professionals who would vouch for wearing a mask, he “can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other government officials, advised against wearing masks. The evidence at the time indicated that masks would do little to stop the spread of COVID-19.

But experts, seven months into the pandemic, are now arguing that enough new evidence concludes that masks are critical in mitigating COVID-19 spread.

One study published in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that wearing a mask may drop the risk of transmission from 17% to 3%.

Woods’ order comes as the City of Ocala, located in Marion County, is working on putting a mask mandate ordinance in place.

Ocala City Council passed an emergency ordinance last week requiring people to wear masks inside businesses; however, Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed it Monday, according to the Ocala Star Banner.

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

Florida, including Marion County, set a single-day record on Tuesday for the most deaths related to COVID-19.

Mask-wearing among law enforcement has been less consistent than in the general public.

An ABC News analysis found that only three of the nation’s largest police departments require officers to wear masks and gloves while policing Black Lives Matter protests. The other six largest police departments ask, but do not mandate, that on-duty officers wear masks or gloves in public.

In Ocala, officers are advised not to wear masks while on duty so they can clearly communicate with people they encounter, according to the Star Banner.

Woods said as such in his email, telling employees that even if they are among the exceptions who can wear a mask, “the moment that enforcement action is to be taken … the mask will be immediately removed.”

Woods concluded his email by saying, “My orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”

“Be Safe!” Woods wrote.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.