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WINTER HAVEN – On Sept. 15, the Winter Haven City Commission voted to extend an emergency ordinance requiring the wearing of masks in certain indoor locations within city limits for another 30 days.

The ordinance extension was somewhat controversial. Around 30 residents wrote emails in opposition, many linking stories from social media, using phrases like “government overreach” and “Let freedom ring.”

One resident wrote multiple emails, with one including a graph showing pandemic-related statistics from France.

Mayor Brad Dantzler said the emergency mask mandate ordinance is a way for city staff and his fellow commissioners to try and protect Winter Haven area residents..

“It's not political,” the mayor said. “It's not a civil liberties issue – it's science. It's numbers. It's because we all want to stay well.

“It's just, so many people don't believe it,” Dantzler continued. “They just don't believe that we are trying to do things in their best interest. They think it's political or they think it's this or that or whatever it is. It's mind boggling that we cannot come up with some way to take that off the table. That is what I am grappling with.”

Polk County Health Director Dr. Joy Jackson said since some Polk cities started passing mandated mask ordinances around July, the percentage of new positive cases of COVID-19 has dropped significantly.

“I really feel very strongly that the efforts made by our community members wearing masks and conducting themselves according to prevention messaging has led to an improvement of our COVID numbers,” Jackson said.

Around 300 residents were hospitalized for COVID treatment in July. As of Sept. 15, Jackson said 123 were receiving COVID-related treatment at one of the five county hospitals.

“Things are improving, for sure, but we are definitely not out of the woods yet,” Jackson said.

The City of Winter Haven passed Emergency Ordinance 2020-28 on July 13, “requiring persons that live, work, visit or do business in the City of Winter Haven, Florida to wear face coverings in certain public places to stop or slow the spread of Novel Coronavirus Disease 2019.”

The emergency mandated mask ordinance has since been extended in August and now extended again in September.

Mayor Dantzler and Commissioner Brian Yates both asked Jackson if there was a statistic that could mark a point for it to be relatively safe to stop enforcing a mask mandate.

Yates brought up the subject of an exit plan in August and September — saying half of the community thinks a mask ordinance should end right away.

“It's a really divisive issue,” Yates said.

Jackson asked for some additional time to plan for a scientific exit plan with her staff.

City Manager Mike Herr said that with school reopening, events starting and more people out and about, the situation could lend itself to another spike.

“It's an imperfect situation,” Herr said.

The City of Winter Haven mask mandate ordinance will be voted on again Oct. 12.

The fine for non-compliance to the mask mandate in Winter Haven is a non-criminal citation for $150.