PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Following a six-hour long meeting for which over 100 people signed up for public comment, the Pinellas County Commission approved a countywide order for residents to wear masks or face coverings while in public spaces.

The rule goes into effect on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m.

Much of the discussion Tuesday centered around the benefits versus downsides of wearing face coverings and how to roll out such an order across the entire county.

"We have to educate folks so they don't have that false sense of security, that 'ok, I'm wearing a mask, now I can ignore everything else,' and continue that education and continue that enforcement on businesses that see what's happening in their businesses as out of compliance," said Commissioner Kenneth Welch. "We've got to tamp down on that."

"I did want it on the record that I do support masks — it isn't about that I do support masks," said Commissioner Kathleen Peters. "What I do not support is mandating masks and I want to make that clear."

Hospitalizations increasing

During a Facebook Live broadcast Tuesday morning and during today’s Pinellas County Commission meeting, medical experts shared that hospitalizations are increasing.

“A week or two ago there was between 80 and 100 folks hospitalized all across Pinellas for COVID. And today we’re [at] 230 something,” said Dr. Angus Jameson, Pinellas County’s EMS Medical Director.

He says right now there are more COVID-19 patients hospitalized or in the ICU than ever before.

“We are seeing not just the leading indicator of young healthy people testing positive. We are also now seeing the lagging indicators of other people in the community getting sick, very sick,” said Jameson. 

He went on to say the curve of cases in Pinellas County is growing exponentially. In discussions he's had with leaders at hospitals across the county, they’ve told him if the trend continues the hospitals will become strained.

“We’re not just talking about the hospitals to take care of people to take care of people with COVID. We’re talking about them struggling to take care of anybody in the community,” said Jameson.

The ordinance does include some exemptions, such as giving parents discretion over their children under the age of 18 wearing masks.

Pinellas County has its own dashboard with information about coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.