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Community group advocates for mask-wearing during pandemic

STORY BY STEPHANIE LABAFF (Week of July 30, 2020)

Vero resident Tess Whelan seems to have a better sense than local governments what side of the mask debate most county residents come down on.

The group she founded, Mask Wearing Establishments Indian River County, saw a surge in new members after County Commissioners Bob Solari, Joe Flescher and Tim Zorc last week formed a 3-2 majority to vote down an ordinance making masks mandatory after a handful of anti-maskers showed up at commission chambers.

“The day the county commissioners voted down the mask mandate, we grew by 600, which is exciting because it’s a bipartisan group,” said Whelan, noting her embarrassment that Indian River County had garnered national attention as the first county to vote down a mask mandate.

The Vero Beach City Council last week declined even to vote on the issue.

The lack of local government action came a week after U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said that if all Americans wore a mask, the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control in weeks.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” Redfield wrote in an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

For Whelan, the debate over mask wearing is a matter of life or death. A cancer patient with an autoimmune disorder, Whelan was shocked by the lack of effective, coordinated action to combat COVID-19 she saw in Indian River County when she moved to Vero Beach in June.

Whelan, a 56-year-old piano teacher, and her 69-year-old husband are both high-risk for COVID-19. “I saw all of this and thought this is insane. We can’t go anywhere.”

She wanted to do something to help keep herself, her family and others safe but didn’t know what until she stumbled across Mask Wearing Establishments Brevard County on Facebook and decided to duplicate the effort here.

The rapidly growing Facebook page is a platform for residents to share information about local businesses so members can identify and support businesses following CDC guidelines about COVID-19 and specifically masks.

Everything from restaurants to hair salons and medical offices to retail stores are reviewed. Those who post information categorize each business: no mask required, mask required for employees only, and mask required for employees and patrons.

As of Monday, the group had 1,496 members who had reported on 378 local businesses, including 200 that require masks for employees and customers, more than 100 requiring masks for employees only, and about 60 with no mask requirement.

The tone of the site is upbeat, not inflammatory, with members sharing observations, business reviews and stories of their experiences when shopping masked in Indian River County. Many posts are documented with scientific citations.

“We’re really focused on our mission of bringing the community together to work on the common goal of getting businesses to require masks,” said Whelan, who fears lack of a mask mandate will lead shoppers to turn to big box stores and other large chains instead of patronizing local businesses. “The city [and county are] unfairly forcing businesses to shoulder this responsibility.”

In recent weeks, many large corporate retail and restaurant chains have mandated mask wearing in their stores to give customers a level of protection while shopping and dining.

In Indian River County, Walmart, Publix, Winn-Dixie, Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy, McDonald’s and Panera are among the stores mandating masks for employees and customers to protect public health.