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‘Please’ hasn’t worked; time for ‘Mandatory’


A strong majority of non-governmental leaders and other prominent members of our community vehemently disagree with public officials on whether it should be mandatory to wear masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Monday morning, this newspaper’s staff started making calls and sending emails asking people whether the time has come – the surge acute enough, the anxiety sufficiently intolerable – to mandate the wearing of masks in public.

In short order, the answers were streaming in, faster than we could add them to this story.

An overwhelming majority said “Yes.”

Dr. Greg Rosencrance, president of Cleveland Clinic Indian River, and Dr. Ralph Turner, hospital COO, both support mandatory masks in public, as does the chairwoman of the Hospital District, Marybeth Cunningham.

Retired nurse Patricia Habraken, who worked for many years at what was then Indian River Medical Center, strongly supports a mask mandate. “It’s mostly in the grocery store where I see people not wearing them,” she said. “If a sneeze comes on, and you’re infected, then it’s out there.”

Brian Kroh, general manager of John’s Island, sees no other choice and supports a county government mandate on mask-wearing. “I’m not for overregulation,” said Kroh. “But if that’s what it takes to get people to do it, then that’s what they should do.”

Emily Sherwood, president of the John’s Island Foundation, put herself down in the “yes” column. “I’m happy to go on the record” supporting mandatory mask wearing, she said.

“Yes, yes, yes” to a mask mandate, said Hope Woodhouse, immediate past president of the John’s Island Community Service League.

Woodhouse is putting her money where the masks are.

“I went to my mother’s hairdresser of 20 years to get my hair cut. I went in with a mask on. I asked the hairdresser  to wear a mask. She refused. I left. My mom will never go back.

“I went to Mullinax [Ford dealership in Vero] last week to get my car serviced. I was the only person in the place to have a mask on. The service guy kept coming over and hovering over me and talking. I will never go back. He wanted me to get new tires for $1,350. I got them at Tire Kingdom. They all wore masks and the tires were $950.

“I will not do business again with people who refuse to wear a mask inside.”

Ellen Kendall, member of the John’s Island Club Service League, has also staged a personal boycott of places where masks aren’t worn.

“I’ve been astonished at the number of people in downtown Vero Beach, customers in stores and store workers, who don’t have masks. I just leave when I see that,” she said.

“There are a few restaurants in town that have outdoor dining and the staff is wearing masks – those are the only ones we will go to. The numbers are skyrocketing in Florida, and part of the problem is that people are being way too casual. So YES to masks!!”

For most nonprofit leaders and others working with vulnerable populations, there was no hesitation.

“Absolutely yes,” said Lin Reading, who leads the breast cancer support group, Friends after Diagnosis.

“My answer is a resounding YES!” said Karen Deigl, CEO of Senior Resource Association, and an elected member of the Hospital District board.

John Engle, director and co-founder of Haiti Partners, believes mask-wearing should be mandatory. “We’re spiking. We need to do something, and evidence shows that masks can protect people. The human value of being considerate of those around me is one that I think is so important. My wife and I are trying to teach it to our children. I’ve always thought of it as being an American value. I guess those who are opposed to mandatory masks see it differently.”

Noreen Davis, marketing director for another nonprofit, The Arc, which helps special-needs adults and their families, strongly agrees with a mandatory mask policy. “YES! They should be required!!!” she wrote in an email.

“This is a tight-knit community where everyone has relatives, neighbors, friends, etc. that have connections with either older people or younger people that have compromised immune systems,” Davis pointed out. “If not wearing a mask only endangered that person, that’s one thing. But not wearing a mask in public endangers others.”

Elizabeth Thomason, executive director of the county’s Boys and Girls Club, said she supported a mask-wearing mandate because “there’s no political agenda in doing the courteous thing.”

Liz Woody-Remington, co-founder of The Learning Alliance, gave an emphatic “YES!” to the question of whether to mandate masks. “It seems to be the only simple and prudent thing we can do as citizens to protect each other.”

Debbie True, parish administrator for Holy Cross Catholic Church, supports the idea not only locally but nationally.

“I believe strongly that masks should be required not only in Indian River County but everywhere,” True said. “People do not realize that [by wearing masks] they are not only protecting themselves but others as well. No one knows if they themselves may be asymptomatic and spreading the virus unknowingly. We all must be a part of stopping the spread of coronavirus. Until we accept the challenge, we will continue to spread the disease causing more illnesses and deaths.”

Tony Zorbaugh, executive director of The Source, a Christian outreach ministry serving the poor and the homeless, says he and his team support a county-wide mandate. “Masks are required at The Source,” he points out. “We serve some of the most vulnerable people in our community and we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

Many saw mask-wearing as a way of relieving the anxiety of others. From Ellie McCabe, prominent philanthropist and strong supporter of mental health services in the county: “I would be happy if masks were mandatory!”

Others saw it as a public duty to protect their patrons or the public in general. Still others saw it as supporting the economy, among other patriotic notions.

“The short answer is yes,” said Sophie Bentham-Wood, director of marketing and communications at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, who spelled out the museum’s strict social distancing rules, temperature checks and a mask requirement of everyone older than 2.

“The safety of our staff and visitors are of paramount importance,” said Bentham-Wood, looking ahead to when the museum reopens.

Allen Cornell, executive director of Riverside Theatre, also supports a mask mandate in public spaces.

“Not only yes, but hell yes!” said Sean Sexton, rancher, poet laureate of the county and grandson of one of Vero’s best-known early residents, Waldo Sexton. “If we want to open the economy, we can only do so by observing protocol. If we’ll consent to being safe, we can go back to certain prosperity. Why would anyone side with a disease? Think about it! You’d have to be a fool to not want to follow protocol.

“The masks are what’s working,” Sexton went on. “Do it, or someone’s going to get sick!”

Mountain climber, travel author and painter Margaret “Mags” Hobbs says “YES absolutely” to the idea of requiring masks in public. “Research shows they are a positive barrier to speech droplets which spread the virus person to person. So why not?”

Tom Ryder, a resident of John’s Island, not only supports mandatory mask wearing; he is insisting on it where he grocery shops. “Count me as a strong ‘yes,’” he said. “I told customer service at Publix on Miracle Mile last week that I would not return until they require masks. Refusal to wear a mask in a public place is selfish and self-destructive.”

Diana Stark, whose late husband Dick Stark was a legendary philanthropist in Vero Beach, echoed his moral view when she said she supported a county mask mandate because “caring about the health of others should always be No. 1.”

While most people queried supported a county mandate to wear masks in public, others added qualifications, making distinctions between various settings.

Rob Tench, general manager of Orchid Island Club, said “the county should make masks mandatory in all retail outlets until we see the state and county cases decline.”

Alicia Quinn chairs the Cultural Council board and co-chairs the Under the Oaks Art Show. “In an effort to reduce the spread of this virus and to protect those with whom you interact, I feel masks should be required in all public indoor locations,” she stated.

Jeff Powers, a John’s Island resident who started Float Hope, an organization that teaches kids in low-income families to swim, believes masks should be “mandatory or required for interior places open to the public.” But he does not believe masks should be required outside, where the virus appears not to infect as readily.

Brenda Lloyd, an active supporter of many local charities, likewise gave qualified support to a countywide mask initiative.

“I have no problem with having to wear a mask inside crowded retail establishments,” Lloyd says. But walking around outside or eating at restaurants are another matter. “I would not want to be forced to wear a mask when I am outdoors or at restaurants – inside or out – for obvious reasons.”

Learning Alliance education consultant Debbi Arseneaux gave a similarly measured response.

“Masks mandatory in what context?” she asked. “Indoors in stores, schools and other buildings? Yes. Absolutely. Especially anywhere you would be breathing the same air with people over an extended period of time.

“Outdoors in parks or at the beach and walking in your neighborhood? No. Keeping distance should be enough.”

Still others flatly oppose the idea of any mandate forcing people to wear masks.

Hospital District Trustee Allen Jones, who strongly supports the voluntary wearing of masks, is one of those who opposes a mandate. 

“This is America and individual choice is paramount, in my view,” Jones said.

“However, strongly encouraging wearing masks in all business or group environments, I would favor. The public needs to understand that this can be a deadly and highly contagious disease. I have one friend dead from it and another one a ventilator for the better part of three months.

“On the other hand, we know people who were barely affected by the virus though they had it. It’s courtesy to each other that we all wear a mask and social distance. I wouldn’t force people to do the right thing – it’s up to each of us to do that.”

Hospital District trustee, Ann Marie McCrystal, a retired operating room nurse, likewise supports wearing masks but opposes making it mandatory – not like seat belts, as she put it.

“I definitely am in favor of wearing masks in public in order to not only protect one’s self, but also to avoid infecting another person you come in contact with,” said McCrystal.

“I know that masks are not completely sealed and foolproof, except for the more sophisticated protective equipment worn in hospital settings. But a simple cotton mask that covers your nose and mouth is better than no mask at all. I carry a mask with me wherever I go as well as hand sanitizer to use as soon as I return to my car. Although some people think it is a ridiculous exercise, I would rather be safe than sorry.

“I applaud those who listen to the advice of the experts like Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and don’t give in to the advice of those who lack the clinical background and knowledge behind the recommendation of masks,” McCrystal said.

Diana Grossi, CEO of the Hope for Families Center, was vehement. “I say No,” she said. “Use common sense. Sick people should not be out.”

Tracey Zudans, another member of the Hospital District Board, cites the CDC website urging masks if adequate social distancing can’t be maintained indoors. But she would not support making mask-wearing mandatory. “I think that government orders, particularly outdoors or arbitrary non-science-based mandates, are counter-productive resulting in less overall compliance with common sense recommendations.”

Ann Taylor, director of marketing and philanthropy for Indian River Land Trust and a member of the board of Ballet Vero Beach, is scornful of masks entirely. “Absolutely stupid,” Taylor said. “Masks do not work.”

At the same time, as cases spike in the county, views on the topic are shifting, with some rethinking opposition to a mask mandate after seeing the fear of their older or health-impaired friends and co-workers.

Barbara Schlitt Ford, executive director of the Environmental Learning Center, is considering revising the center’s policy of not requiring visitors to wear masks after some volunteers quit rather than risk exposure to guests, few of whom wore masks.

“Masks probably should be required given the alarming Florida spike in cases,” said Schlitt Ford. “But I do think there will be a lot of pushback. When I am out and about, I see fewer than half the people wearing masks, actually more like 20 percent.”

Staff writers Mary Schenkel and Stephanie LaBaff contributed to this report.