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The Fight Over Masks In Florida Counties

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In North Central Florida, Marion County has long been known for its lush rolling hills and thoroughbred horse farms. Six Kentucky Derby winners are from there. But this week, it's been thrust into the national spotlight for a different reason - a fiery debate about masks between elected officials, the local sheriff and residents. Gabriella Paul of member station WUFT reports.

GABRIELLA PAUL, BYLINE: The whole issue started Monday, when the mayor of Ocala vetoed a new city council ordinance that required people to wear masks in stores. Here's business owner Michael Warren (ph).

MICHAEL WARREN: It's ironic. We're in the Deep South in Ocala, and it's a deeply Christian community, for the most part. And so it seems to me that the ethic that ought to drive that is to consider others more important than yourself.

PAUL: Mayor Kent Guinn says his main reason for the veto was the mask ordinance would be too difficult to enforce, especially considering it also applied to churches. Then on Tuesday, the sheriff of Marion County issued an order preventing his deputies and staff from wearing masks while on duty. And the same applied to visitors of his department's offices. Warren, the business owner, doesn't understand why anyone doesn't want to wear a mask, especially as the area is seeing an increase in coronavirus infections and deaths.

WARREN: It's one thing to cut off your own nose to spite your face. But some of this is cutting off your neighbor's nose. And that seems troubling and very saddening.

PAUL: On Wednesday, after a heated meeting and comments from several dozen residents, the Ocala City Council voted to override the mayor's veto and put in place an immediate mask ordinance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Grable (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

PAUL: The new ordinance requires business owners to post signs asking customers to wear masks and to encourage those who don't to put them on. Mayor Guinn says noncompliant shop owners could face a $25 fine.

WARREN: So this would be probably to lowest of our lowest of our lowest of our lowest priority calls.

PAUL: Well-known Ocala Pastor Mark Cummins says the debate roiling his community is symbolic of a larger rift in the United States. He was among the public speakers during the city council meeting this week.

MARK CUMMINS: The greatest tragedy in what's happening right now really isn't the mask. It's how we are becoming divided and polarized as people.

PAUL: As the Ocala mask ordinance takes effect, the Marion County sheriff revised his department's policy on Friday after national attention. His deputies will still be prevented from wearing masks, but now visitors to the department's offices will have the option to wear masks after all.

For NPR News, I'm Gabriella Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVO TO ME'S "MND WRKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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