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Marion and Ocala leaders reject calls for mask ordinances amid COVID-19 crisis

Government leaders in Ocala and Marion County have refused to implement ordinances calling for mandatory face coverings despite pleas from many area doctors and residents.

On Tuesday, the Marion County Commission held steady on its plan to encourage residents to wear masks and adhere to guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that also include social distancing, handwashing, extensive sanitizing efforts and staying home when sick.

Several doctors and area residents seeking a mask ordinance turned out Tuesday night for the Ocala City Council meeting, including one woman who appeared to be wearing a white Hazmat-type suit, mask and face shield. The majority of those in attendance pushed for an ordinance, though a few also spoke out against such a measure, saying it would infringe upon their rights.

Councilman Matthew Wardell made a motion for the Council to approve an emergency ordinance that would require masks to be worn in Ocala. Councilmembers voted 3-2 in favor of the motion but it failed because an emergency ordinance requires four yes votes to pass.

The measure also was supported by Council President Pro-Tem Justin Grabelle and Ire Bethea. But it was opposed by Councilman Brent Malever and Council President Jay Musleh, who said he hoped people would “just do the right thing” and wear masks when they are out in public.

Marion County reported 2,826 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday among 1,307 men, 1,490 women, eight non-residents and 21 people listed as unknown. That marked an increase of 105 cases in a 24-hour period.

There have been 35 deaths and 273 people have been hospitalized across the county.

Almost 74 percent of those Marion County cases – 2,082 – have been reported in Ocala. Others also have been identified in Summerfield (162), Belleview (142), Dunnellon (105), Citra (39), Reddick (33), Silver Springs (34), Ocklawaha (31), Weirsdale (20), Anthony (15), Fort McCoy (6), Orange Lake (4), Candler (3), East Lake (3), Lowell (3), The Villages (2), Sparr (1) and Morriston (1).

On Tuesday morning at the Marion County Commission meeting, Mark Lander, administrator of the county’s Department of Health, said he believes part of the reason for the spike in cases is because large groups gathered to celebrate on the Fourth of July holiday weekend. He said he’s also seen a disturbing trend that shows the median age of patients starting to shift up again from younger people to those in their forties and fifties, which leads to concern because older patients typically have more severe health issues when they contract COVID-19. Lander also expressed concern at the increase in cases at long-term care facilities, as that population is considered among the most vulnerable to the illness.

As of Wednesday, six people had died of COVID-19 at four Ocala long-term care centers – three at Palm Garden of Ocala and one each at Ocala Health and Rehabilitation Center, Timber Ridge Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and The Harmony House of Ocala. A Florida Department of Health report also showed that 122 residents and staff members had tested positive for the deadly virus at 22 different Marion County facilities. Those were broken down as 22 residents, 41 residents who transferred out of the care centers and 59 employees, the report shows.

On Wednesday, Publix revealed that six employees at stores throughout Ocala have tested positive for the Coronavirus. And this week the parent company of Winn-Dixie, Southeastern Grocers, implemented a plan requiring customers to wear masks and expressed frustration that elected officials haven’t already taken that step.

Photos in Ocala, Florida

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