Marion County, Florida’s Sheriff Billy Woods made a controversial move Tuesday when he sent out an email mandating that none of his deputies are allowed to wear masks while on-duty.
In an email obtained by Heavy, Woods wrote, “…as for us, my order will stand as is when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my Office – masks will not be worn.”
Woods anticipated pushback but says he isn’t convinced of the science.
The email read in part:
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. We can debate and argue all day of why and why not. The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t. Since the beginning of this pandemic the operation of this office has not changed and no wearing of masks has been put in place. With just at 900 employees, our number of cases so far has proven that the current way we are approaching the issue is working. This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion. Please keep in mind this entire pandemic is fluid and constantly changing the way things are done. However, my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.
Marion County is in Central Florida and is known for its horse pastures and a sprawling retirement community, The Villages, which also spills over into neighboring Sumpter County. Marion county’s population is about 366,000 people, and its biggest city is Ocala, whose city council recently mandated a mask order that was swiftly vetoed by the mayor, according to the Ocala Star-Banner. The reason for the veto was that the mandate required fines for those who didn’t comply.
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said, “My (police) chief and I have talked about it. We will never write a fine. We’re just not going to do it,” referring to Ocala Police Department Chief Greg Graham, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.
As of Aug. 12, Marion County reports 6,784 cases of coronavirus and 104 deaths. In the entire state of Florida, there have been 536,981 reported cases and 8,553 deaths, according to the state’s health department.
Woods says in his email, “Although the Mayor vetoed that ordinance yesterday it will more than likely be overruled on the next City Council meeting with a supermajority vote. Now, that ordinance exempts government entities and leaves the decision to the figureheads.”
The Order Came the Same Day Chief Woods Had a Phone Conference Call With President Donald Trump
According to a Facebook Post on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office page, Woods was on a 30-minute conference call with the President and other sheriffs the same day he issued the email. It’s not clear whether that’s a coincidence or a catalyst for finally issuing the order he said he’d mulled over for two weeks, but Trump is rarely seen wearing a mask and has made clear he will not mandate Americans to wear them.
Chief Woods also instructed on what to do if people confront deputies for not wearing masks, saying:
If at any time you are confronted by any individual complaining, berating you or just being a difficult individual, you will politely and professionally tell them “I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff” and then walk away from them. From that point on it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint or their question.
Nearly 800 people have commented on the FB post about the masks at the time of this writing. Most are negative, accusing the chief of making masks a political issue or expressing outrage at the mandate believing it puts everyone, including deputies and their families, at risk.
There are a few supporters of the measure too. Heather Kennedy thanked the Chief, saying “Thank you! I have had a hard time understanding why you had not come out and addressed our situation going on in the country! How you would respond or what you would do if it came to our back door! Our family fully supports you.”
There Are Exceptions in Which Deputies Can Wear Masks, but Visitors to the Sheriff’s Office Are Not Allowed to Wear Masks & If They Do They’ll Be Asked to Take it Off
The email outlines situations in which masks can be worn, usually due to mandates that override the sheriff’s order. Those include sheriff’s human resources offices, the courthouse, jails, public schools, and hospitals.
Chief Woods also says that deputies should keep a mask in their pocket for certain high-risk situations they may be called to such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities, or if they’re dispatched to a known COVID-19 situation, or if the call involves someone who is high risk and elderly.
However, Woods wrote in bold in the email that in any of those situations, “For all of these exceptions, the moment that enforcement action is to be taken and it requires you to give an individual orders/commands to comply, the mask will be immediately removed.”
Marion County Sheriff Spokesperson Sgt. Paul Bloom told Heavy, “He wants to ensure clear communications between deputies and citizens which is not easily accomplished with a mask on.”
The chief says that there is no reason for people to wear masks when they go to any of the sheriff’s offices because there are glass barriers between staff and visitors “that the virus cannot magically go thru.”
Woods says with the current climate of “hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby.”
Anyone entering a sheriff’s lobby with a mask on will be asked to remove it and if they refuse they’ll be asked to leave. If they’re uncomfortable waiting in the lobby with everyone unmasked, they can leave their phone number and wait outside or in their car and be called “with their completed transaction.”
The email ends with the words, “Be Safe!”