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Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference at Forest High School on April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Florida. (Photo: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference at Forest High School on April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Florida. (Photo: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

As Florida Sets Daily Record for Covid-19 Deaths, Sheriff Bans Deputies From Wearing Masks

The policy "actively puts peoples' lives at risk," critics warn.

Jessica Corbett

A sheriff in Florida is under fire for deciding Tuesday to ban his deputies from wearing face masks while on the job—ignoring the advice of public health experts about the safety measures that everyone should take during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the rising Covid-19 death toll in his county and state.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods' email to his deputies announcing the mask ban was first reported by the local Ocala Star-Banner, which noted that the county "set a single-day record on Tuesday for the most deaths related to Covid-19, with 13 more deaths reported," bringing the total to 102.

Various outlets across the nation then picked up the story on Wednesday—including the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of Woods' email and pointed out that Florida also set a record in deaths related to Covid-19 on Tuesday. At least 277 deaths were recorded statewide, according to the Post.

The Post reported that Florida has seen over 542,000 cases and 8,600 deaths out of the nation's total 5.15 million cases and 162,000 deaths. As infections in Florida have soared in recent weeks, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been widely condemned for rushing to lift restrictions.

Although some local and state leaders in other parts of the country have implored police officers to cover their faces while on duty during the crisis or even issued face mask requirements and punished law enforcement officials for refusing to comply, DeSantis has not mandated masks for anyone.

But Woods, in his email, prohibited his officers from wearing masks, with limited exceptions for those who are in a local courthouse, hospital, jail, or public school, or otherwise directly interacting with people suspected of being infected with the virus. As the Star-Banner reported:

"For all of these exceptions, the moment that enforcement action is to be taken and it requires you to give an individual orders/commands to comply, the mask will be immediately removed," Woods said.

Woods said deputies who work special details or special events won't be allowed to wear masks unless it falls under the exceptions he provided.

"As for special details and/or any special events (paid or not), masks will not be worn. Effective immediately the entity that has requested and has hired a deputy for a special detail will be given clear instruction by Darian Tucker at the time of their written request that masks will not be worn (unless one of the exceptions above applies). In addition, if you are the special detail deputy you will again advise the contact person that a mask will not be worn by you," according to the email.

Any deputies confronted by community members about not covering their faces should "politely and professionally tell them I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff," and walk away, Woods wrote. Regarding the Marion County Sheriff's Office, "effective immediately, any individual walking in to any one of our lobbies (which includes the main office and all district offices) that is wearing a mask will be asked to remove it."

Woods tied his mask ban to a wave of national protests against police brutality toward Black Americans and calls for reform that were sparked by Minnesota police killing George Floyd in May, writing that "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."

The sheriff also claimed—without any supporting evidence and in contrast with the vast majority of messages from public health experts about the importance of everyone wearing a mask throughout the pandemic to protect themselves and others—that "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."

"Now, I can already hear the whining and just so you know I did not make this decision easily and I have weighed it out for the past two weeks," wrote Woods, who oversees about 900 employees, according to the local newspaper. "This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion. 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."

In addition to denouncing Woods' decision as dangerous and out-of-line with medical consensus on masks and the CDC's official recommendation, some critics suggested the policy could encounter legal trouble.

As MSNBC political analyst Richard Stengel put it in a tweet Wednesday: "Apart from being monstrous and ignorant and irresponsible, isn't this a violation of the civil rights of officers who want to wear masks?"

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