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Volunteers at the Gary Edwards Day food distribution earlier this month wear masks as they carry food to a vehicle.

LIVE OAK — Wearing face masks in public is already encouraged, but could — or should — the practice be mandatory?

Clyde Fleming asked his fellow members of the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners to consider doing just that at a special called meeting of the board Tuesday.

“Maybe it’s something where we make it mandatory that you wear a mask in Suwannee County in public facilities,” Fleming said of the need to wear a mask, adding he was part of the problem himself as he forgot his mask at home when coming to the Judicial Annex for the meeting.

“We need to start doing something … in order to try and stop the spread of the COVID.”

Fleming’s concerns stems from the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus at Pilgrim’s Pride and the rapid escalation of the number of positive cases in the county.

Kerry Waldron, the county’s administrator of health, told the board at the meeting that 93 workers at the chicken processing plant in western Suwannee County had tested positive for the virus. Waldron added that the outbreak at Pilgrim’s could, as of Tuesday, be linked to 121 total cases that include eight counties in Florida as well as some cases in South Georgia.

He said 64 local cases were tied to Suwannee County.

“All these people that work at that facility, they’re around in the community and a lot of them, they’re not wearing masks,” Fleming said.

Waldron said mandating that people wear masks is up to the board and that there have been counties and cities that have made that decision.

But he also said that unless the order could be enforced, it won’t be beneficial.

And that was the concern of Len Stapleton, the District 4 commissioner and board chairman, as well as County Administrator Randy Harris.

“I don’t know that we’re capable of (making it mandatory to wear masks),” Stapleton said. “I do want people to understand that it’s extremely serious, that it’s coming back.

“If it continues to rise, obviously we’ll be pushed into a corner to have to do something. I hate to impose the will of government on people, but also want people to be safe.”

Harris said he shared Fleming’s concern but didn’t believe there are enough masks available to mandate that everybody wear one constantly.

Waldron said the health department has distributed more than 44,000 cloth masks and due to the demand has requested another pallet of masks to provide to those who want them.

“I’m confident there’s not enough masks around,” Harris said, adding he has seen people wearing disposable masks that appeared to have been worn for a lengthy period of time instead of one use.

“Clearly, clearly, we were very concerned at the beginning of this. The numbers are far greater today, but the public at large is not as concerned…We have a massive spike in the number of cases that I believe is directly associated with people letting their guard down.”

Waldron agreed with that assessment.

He said one young person that had tested positive recently was unable to hear when health department staff called to inform him of his test result because he was out at a bar.

“I’ve learned something through this, that American people can’t stay home,” Waldron said. “They’ve got to go somewhere. They want to go somewhere. They want to be around people and they want to talk, hang out and do things.

“I’m concerned that some of the attitude is, ‘It won’t affect me, I can’t get it.’ That’s not true. We’re all susceptible to it.”

Fleming added: “I feel we’re going to be pushed into a corner, soon.”

Jamie Wachter is the editor of the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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