The decision by Marion County, Florida Sheriff Billy Woods to ban deputies and visitors to the sheriff’s office from wearing masks has made national headlines, with outlets from NBC News to NPR portraying the sheriff’s order as some sort of anti-mask statement. As the sheriff has made clear though, the new policy isn’t meant as a political statement. Though it might sound hard to believe for some, Woods’ order is meant to ensure the safety of both deputies and the public that they serve.
Most media outlets, unfortunately, are intent on portraying the move as an act of defiance, not public safety. From NPR:
Marion County, with a population of about 370,000, has had nearly 6,800 confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with 104 deaths. Marion reported a single-day record of 13 deaths on Tuesday, county officials said.
According to the Star-Banner, 43 sheriff’s office employees — including several patrol officers — and more than 200 inmates at the Marion County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus.
Woods’ office did not return calls from NPR seeking comment.
While NPR doesn’t bother to mention this fact, the truth is that the order from the sheriff provides an exemption for wearing masks in the county jail, where the sheriff acknowledges that “social distancing is not possible.” Sheriff Woods says the reason for the new mandate is simple; he wants to ensure that masks don’t inhibit the ability of deputies and sheriff’s employees to communicate clearly with the public.
“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 said. “All of our lobbies have glass barriers between you and them that the virus cannot magically go thru.”
Woods said anyone who enters those lobbies wearing a mask will be asked to remove it and if they refuse, they will be asked to leave.
“If the individual is not comfortable with standing and waiting in the lobby with other individuals, politely ask for their cell number and advise them to stand outside or sit in their vehicle and you will text or call them with their completed transaction,” Woods instructed his staff.
Woods also pointed out in his email that he didn’t make the decision against face coverings lightly and weighed it out for the past two weeks.
Most media outlets are portraying Sheriff Woods as an outlier, but the Ocala News reported that several other local jurisdictions have similar policies in place.
Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham said the department issues masks to officers but while on duty, he doesn’t expect them to wear masks because he wants their orders to be clearly understood.
Belleview Police Chief Terry Holland also said officers on duty should not wear masks so the lines of communications are clear.
Chief Mike McQuaig of Dunnellon Police Department said he doesn’t require officers to wear a mask in their calls-for-service. He too wants the officers commands to be heard clearly.
In other words, Sheriff Woods’ order isn’t unusual or outrageous, though that’s certainly how most media outlets are framing his decision. It’s another example of the press creating a controversy rather than simply reporting the news, but in the end this is really much ado about nothing.