US & Canada

Coronavirus: Florida sheriff bans deputies from wearing masks

A Miami police officer wears a mask to enforce the city's mask mandate Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A Miami police officer wears a mask to enforce the city's mask mandate

A Florida sheriff has banned his officers from wearing face masks at work.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods' order also includes visitors to the office. It is thought to be the first such mask ban for US law enforcement.

He said it was vital officers' orders were clearly understood and that anyone coming to the station be identifiable.

Florida is one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with over 550,000 cases and 8,700 deaths.

"My order will stand as is when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my office - masks will not be worn," an email Sherriff Woods sent to his officers read, according to local paper the Ocala-Star Banner.

Sheriff Woods, whose jurisdiction is about 80 miles (130km) north of Orlando, also said visitors must remove their masks before entering the lobby of the station, linking his decision to recent protests against police brutality and racism.

"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," he wrote in his email.

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Media captionTrump pivots on masks: 'I'm getting used to the mask'

His order, issued on Tuesday, has some exemptions, including for those officers working in jails where the infection risk is higher, or at the county courthouse, hospitals or schools.

More than 200 inmates at the county's jail have tested positive, according to the Ocala-Star Banner, which first reported on the mask ban.

At least 36 jail employees have also tested positive, and an infected nurse who worked there has died, the newspaper reported.

Image copyright Marion County Sheriff's Office
Image caption Sheriff Woods said he was fully aware of the controversy

In his email, Mr Woods says he has carefully studied the issue and has found the evidence for wearing a mask to be inconclusive.

World Health Organization (WHO) advice says non-medical face coverings should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible.

Coronavirus is spread when droplets are sprayed into the air when infected people talk, cough or sneeze. Those droplets can then fall on surfaces.

The WHO says there is also emerging evidence of airborne transmission of the virus, with tiny particles hanging in aerosol form in the air.

The US currently has 5.2 million infections - far more than any other country - and over 166,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The wearing of masks has been fiercely debated along political lines in the US, with President Donald Trump refusing to wear one in public for months.

"I'm getting used to wearing a mask," he told reporters in July. He had previously mocked political opponents and journalists for wearing them.

Wearing a mask in the US has often acquired political connotations - Republican supporters of Mr Trump are less likely to don masks than Democrats.

According to a New York Times analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, there have been around 200,000 so-called "excess deaths" in the US during the pandemic - meaning some 60,000 more deaths have to be added to the existing toll.

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