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Florida sheriff bans deputies and visitors from wearing face masks: "This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion"

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods has instructed employees of his office, in Florida, not to wear masks when they are on duty, barring some exceptions. "This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion," he said in an email to employees.

Woods noted the mayor of Ocala, which is the largest city in Florida's Marion County, vetoed a mask mandate that was recently passed by the city council. He said the veto is expected to be overruled but that the ordinance exempts government entities, leaving the decision of whether or not to mandate masks to the figure heads.

"So, as for us, my order will stand as is when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my Office – masks will not be worn," Woods wrote in his email, which was sent to CBS News on Wednesday by the Marion County Sheriff's Office public information director. 

Employees, however, can wear "only pre-approved masks" in some cases: if HR instructs them to, and if they are at hospitals, the courthouse, the jail, or public or private schools that have mask mandates for students. Deputies should also carry masks while on patrol in case they have to respond to a nursing home or assisted living facility, a known COVID-19 address alert from dispatch, or a call that involves a high-risk elderly individual, Woods said.

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Sheriff Billy Woods Marion County Sheriff's Department

"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' email reads.

He said deputies should not wear masks at any special event or special detail. 

"If at any time you are confronted by any individual complaining, berating you or just being a difficult individual, you will politely and professionally tell them 'I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff' and then walk away from them," Woods wrote. "From that point on it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint or their question."

The email also details guidance for visitors who enter the sheriff's department: Anyone who enters wearing a mask will be asked to remove it.

"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," Woods wrote. "All of our lobbies have glass barriers between you and them that the virus cannot magically go thru."

If a person does not wish to remove the mask they will be asked to leave. If a visitor feels uncomfortable standing in the lobby with others, Woods advises his employees get their cell number and have the visitor wait outside. 

"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 2 weeks," he wrote. "We can debate and argue all day of why and why not. The fact is, 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."

Woods said that since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the sheriff's office has not mandated the wearing of masks. "With just at 900 employees, our number of cases so far has proven that the current way we are approaching the issue is working," he wrote. 

"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," he wrote. "However, my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address."

He closes the email with "Be Safe!" 

Florida has become an epicenter of the pandemic, reporting more than 550,000 coronavirus cases and 8,700 deaths due to the virus. Monroe County has had at least 6,798 confirmed cases and 104 deaths, according to Florida's health department.

Ocala Mayor Kenty Guinn on Monday vetoed the mask mandate passed last week by the city council, announcing his decision in an appearance on The Sky 97.3 FM, the Ocala StarBanner reported. Guinn said the mandate would include a fine for non-compliance and that it would be too difficult to enforce.

However, councilman Matt Wardell, who introduced the ordinance, said the requirements are not burdensome. The fine would be $25 and businesses would post signs asking customers to wear masks and requiring employees to wear them, he said, according to the Ocala StarBanner. 

The mayor said the local police chief is also against the mandate. "My (police) chief and I have talked about it," Guinn told the radio station. "We will never write a fine. We're just not going to do it." He was referring to Ocala Police Department Chief Greg Graham, the Ocala StarBanner reported.

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