Florida’s surgeon general quietly advises everyone to wear masks in public spaces

Quietly and without fanfare, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees on Saturday issued a public health advisory recommending people wear face masks in public.

“All individuals in Florida should wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible,’’ Rivkees wrote in a document date-stamped Monday by the Department of Health.

The advisory also recommends “all individuals should refrain from participation in social or recreational gatherings of more than 50 people” and for those in crowd sizes smaller than that, the direction is simple: “practice social distancing by maintaining a distance of at least six feet from each other and wear a face covering.”

The directive is not a requirement and carries no penalties, but the suggestion that nearly everyone should be wearing face masks is more sweeping than the position offered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is rarely shown wearing a face covering.

The same day Rivkees signed the public health advisory, the governor told reporters Saturday that he supports wearing masks but not requiring them.

“We’ve just got to trust people that you’ll give them an opportunity to do the good things to make good decisions,’’ he said. “I think that that tends to work better than to mandate this, mandate that.”

The Department of Health advisory lists some exceptions to its recommendation for masks, including children under the age of 2, individuals with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing a face covering, people who work “in a profession where use of a face covering is not compatible with the duties of the profession” and people “engaged in outdoor work or recreation with appropriate social distancing in place.”

But Rivkees, a pediatrician who has had a low profile in last two months of the pandemic, followed the advice of the Florida Medical Association, the state’s largest and most politically influential physicians group. Last week, the FMA urged Floridians to use face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and called on local officials to adopt regulations requiring face masks in public places.

“The science is clear,” said Ronald F. Giffler, the FMA president and a Pompano Beach physician. “Asymptomatic infected individuals can release infectious aerosol particles while breathing and speaking. Not wearing a mask or face covering increases exposure.”

The same day the DOH advisory was issued, the state reported more than 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest daily total yet in Florida, after a week of record-breaking numbers.

The governor has said the median age of Floridians with COVID-19 is lowering, with the average age of individuals testing positive in June now 37, compared to March when it was 65 1/2. He said Saturday that many people are testing positive while showing no symptoms, a cause for alarm among health professionals who fear the virus will continue to spread throughout the state as people who test positive go about their daily business.

Several local governments have issued local orders mandating people wear face masks in public places, including those in the Florida Keys, Miami Beach, Tampa and all of Orange County. Miami-Dade has not implemented such an order, though Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Friday that local police and code enforcement officers will be monitoring businesses and public spaces to ensure people are following social distancing guidelines.

The governor noted on Friday that “we’re starting to see an erosion of social distancing,” saying that it was “probably among the younger population.” He said the health department would launch public service announcements reminding Floridians to wash their hands frequently and to observe social distancing.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

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