Presser Notes: Reconsidering mask mandate again

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said Monday that he feels like it’s time to pull back the city’s mask mandate, a move the Pensacola City Council will be discussing this week.

“We’ll see where we go with this,” Robinson said during his weekly press conference Monday morning.

The mayor first suggested last month that city council repeal the municipal mandate, which requires the wearing of masks inside public businesses in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. He framed the mandate as a public health tool that should be governed by specific metrics, in this case the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, though he also clarifies, as he did Monday, that the use of masks is a “correct practice that we need to continue to do as a community.”

“We said as much four weeks ago, that the effectiveness of the mandate had probably reached its peak,” Robinson said.

The mayor noted that the local hospitalization rate has hovered steadily in recent weeks in the proximity of 50, which he earlier identified as a threshold of sorts. He said he couldn’t say if the city’s mask order was actually effective in keeping that number in check.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is that the mandate is not pushing our numbers any lower,” Robinson said. “Is it keeping our numbers from going higher? We don’t know, I mean, those are things we’d have to figure out.”

The mayor suggested that as a longer-term approach perhaps the city should consider establishing hospitalization thresholds which, when reached, would automatically trigger either a reinstitution or repeal of an elastic mandate. At times, he said, mask-wearing should be considered “essential,” while at other times it could be “more lax.”

“I know a lot of people are thinking somehow COVID’s going to be over,” Robinson said. “As we’ve gotten seven months into it, it’s much of what I’ve been saying seven months ago: I think we’re going to have to learn to live with this.”

While local hospitalizations have remained stable, other numbers — like the number of new cases each day, as well as the testing positivity rates — have indicated recent increases. Robinson said Monday that maybe the recent spikes were the result of a “data dump,” which is when backlogged information is uploaded into the system at once, and that he considered the number of hospitalizations to be the metric to keep an eye on.

“Is it data? Is it actual cases? I don’t know, but I haven’t seen it translate into actual hospitalizations,” the mayor said.

Waiting for the Ferries

Also during Monday’s presser, Mayor Robinson discussed ongoing efforts aimed at realizing some form of service to ferry commuters across Pensacola Bay as damage incurred when unmoored barges hit the bay bridge during Hurricane Sally is repaired.

Robinson said that the city has repaired hurricane damage to its port landing site — “the city of Pensacola is up and ready to go” — and is awaiting the Florida Department of Transportation to determine how best to accommodate such a service on Gulf Breeze’s end, where there is no location deep enough to dock a ferry.

The mayor said that FDOT and Gulf Breeze officials are currently discussing one particularly ironic fix for accommodating a ferry: “Perhaps, no pun intended, but there could be some barges connected to the pier and make it easier for people to get out there, and make it faster and not as expensive.”

For now, the city is opening its facilities to private charter boats ferrying people across the bay. The mayor noted that a number of outside-the-area ferry services have also visited the area to consider to consider providing their services while the bridge is repaired.

“We see it as a community asset that needs to be utilized, and if it’s a ferry, we’d love a big ferry system, but if it’s just using our assets for charters we’d be happy to do that,” Robinson said.

Robinson also noted a project to be discussed this week by the Pensacola City Council, which involves constructing a dock at Maritime Park.

“We’ve been talking about a day-use marina there for some time, why not get started and have a place for charters or other boating facilities could dock up to,” the mayor said. “Our goals is to put out as many assets as we can for citizens.”