By Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
Escambia County Commission Vice Chairman Robert Bender isn’t itching to institute a mask mandate.
“I would say the county supports wearing masks in public when you can,” Bender told Inweekly.
The city of Pensacola recently issued a mask order within city limits requiring the wearing of face coverings for indoor public spaces in an effort to curb the spread of COVID. The Pensacola City Council then requested that Escambia County do the same.
Commissioner Bender, whose District 4 lies largely inside the city, said he hadn’t “actually seen the request,” but that he didn’t foresee the county following suit. The county official said such a mask mandate would be difficult to enforce.
“With a mandate you’re giving people an expectation that there will be enforcement, and when they’re isn’t any, you get conflicts,” Bender said.
Bender’s fellow commissioners — with the exception of Commissioner Lumon May — also appear reluctant to impose any such mask mandate. Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson on Monday said he remained hopeful that the county would move on the issue.
“They do have the ability to make a difference,” Robinson said, adding that political considerations should not be in play on this matter. “I could care less about elections or anything else. What we have to do is what’s right for our community.”
Commissioner Bender — who now sits in Robinson’s former seat on the board of county commissioners — said he has not heard from many constituents requesting that the county enact a mask order.
“For about every email we get asking for one, we get two asking us not to,” he said.
Bender also said that area businesses have not pushed for any such mandate.
“Off the top of my head, I’m not aware of one business contacting my office asking for that,” the commissioner said, adding that individual businesses could act on their own to require masks. “Businesses have every opportunity to do it.”
Bender said that local hospital officials seem supportive of the county’s current position.
“They feel the tact we’re taking is appropriate,” he said. “Not one of them have told me we need to do a mask mandate.”
Other local officials have said that hospital officials do point to the use of masks as a key safety measure in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Mayor Robinson has repeatedly referenced his own conversations with healthcare professionals, and last week Escambia County School Board Chairman Patty Hightower presented a letter signed by the heads of all three local hospitals as she pushed — ultimately successfully — to have the district require the wearing of masks on school campuses.
Bender declined to say if there was any threshold — the county now has over 7,000 COVID cases — that would cause Escambia to alter course on this matter.
“I think our approach right now is we’re asking you to so we don’t have to tell anyone what to do,” the commissioner said.
Note: In late June, Inweekly had The Political Matrix poll 194 voters from Bender’s District 4, and 77.8% supported a mandatory mask order county-wide. Since the poll, cases and hospitalizations have tripled and deaths have nearly doubled.