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Florida sheriff prohibits deputies, visitors from wearing masks

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Sheriff Billy Woods (Credit: Marion County Sheriff’s Department /Marion County Sheriff’s Department)

A sheriff in Marion County, Fla. has informed his deputies that protective masks are not allowed to be worn at work.

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The Washington Post reports Sheriff Billy Woods has prohibited masks at work, a rule extending to visitors of the sheriff’s office. There are exceptions for officers on duty in certain places such as hospitals and when dealing with persons who are either high-risk for or have already tested positive for COVID-19.

Sheriff Billy Woods  mask thegrio.com
OCALA, FL – APRIL 20: Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference after a shooting at Forest High School on April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Florida. It was reported that a former student shot a 17-year-old male student in the ankle. The shooter, whose name has not yet been released, is in custody. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

“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,” the sheriff writes in an email obtained by the Post.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of August 12, Marion County has recorded 6,573 cases of COVID-19 and 89 total deaths.

Wearing a mask has been a debated issue in the Florida town of Ocala, the largest city in Marion County. Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed a mandatory mask mandate passed by the Ocala City Council, according to the Post. He cited a refusal to enforce the rule by Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham

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“My chief and I have talked about it. We will never write a fine. We’re just not going to do it,” says Guinn according to the Post.

The new ban on masks for on-duty officers allows them to wear them while in the courthouse or country jail but requires immediate removal once exiting either location. Masks are not to be worn by law enforcement at special events and visitors to department buildings will be asked to remove face coverings in the lobby.

The Post reports Woods ties the ban on visitor masks to recent protests across the country against police brutality.

“In light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or 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,” he writes according to the news platform.

Mississippi COVID19 surge thegrio.com
3M brand N95 particulate respirators are displayed on a table on July 28, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The sheriff also claims that not wearing masks has not resulted in a surge of cases among his department.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic the operation of this office has not changed and no wearing of masks has been put in place,” he says according to the Post.

Still, the coronavirus continues to spread, especially among vulnerable populations. The Post finds that the local jail has seen a spike in positive cases, reporting at least 200 inmates and 36 jail employees with COVID-19. It includes a nurse at the jail who died of the virus.

Sheriff Woods, however, is adamant in his position. According to the report, deputies are instructed to tell anyone requesting they wear a mask, “politely and professionally tell them I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff.”

He continues “This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion.”

The sheriff adds, “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.”

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