Polk County Masks

To help maintain social distance, some people were asked to wait outside of the Polk County Tax Collector office last week.

Polk County Commissioners last week stopped short of mandating the wearing of face masks to stem the recent escalating spike in COVID-19 cases and instead opted to purchase a million masks to help promote the board's “strong” recommendation that residents wear masks while out and about.

The board unanimously approved the resolution and underscored the recommendation by adding the word “strong” to suggest all Polk residents and visitors conform to federal CDC

recommendations. Those recommendations include social distancing, frequent hand washing and avoidance of large groups or gatherings outside of family.

“None of this is going to be fixed this year,” said Board Chairman Bill Braswell. “But (the masks) may help.”

He added that social distancing seemed, according to available information, to be the best answer to stopping or containing the spread of the disease.

The board discussed the potential for a countywide mask-wearing mandate, but discarded taking that step, even though the county's largest city, Lakeland, has passed a mask resolution.

The board also last week put the brakes on its federal funds programs to aid small businesses and individuals. The board decided to stop accepting applications for both individual help with rent, mortgages, utilities and food, and to also quit taking requests for funds from small businesses.

The measures, the officials said, were to reassess how much of the money provided by the federal government had been spent and what was left in the county's coffers.

Individual applications were halted last Friday and business help requests are to be closed July 17.

As of Monday of last week, Central Florida Development Council officials said the county had already provided some $16 million to offset business losses and Polk County Budget Director Todd Bond agreed that about $16.5 was committed to that relief.

Bond added that each request for business help resulted in about $3,300 per applicant being doled out.

“If we stop processing requests on (July 17), then we'll have an idea of what's left,” he said.

The county business help fund set aside was about $30 million, with $15 million set aside for individual assistance.

The cessation action doesn't mean that no further grants will be available, depending on how much money is left, the board agreed — but no details on what the county would do with any leftover funds was decided last week.

Also Monday, Polk County Health Department Director Dr. Joy Jackson reiterated the climb in the number of cases, agreed that some of those numbers may be due to increased testing, but stressed that the epidemic was far from being “controlled.”

Since the county had penciled in about $20 million for health-related initiatives and much of that money was still available, the board opted to buy masks and distribute them free to the public.

County Manager Bill Beasley said the masks could be ordered from various suppliers and distributed through county and municipal facilities that have remained open or will be opened.

The masks proposed for purchase are disposable, but can be used multiple times, he said.

No timetable for the receipt of the masks was given last week.