All five Alachua County commissioners and the county manager were named defendants in a civil rights complaint filed on May 11 over the county’s face mask order.
Gainesville civil rights attorney Raemi Eagle-Glenn filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of five county residents. The complaint, the document that starts a lawsuit, says the order discriminates against those with medical conditions or disabilities. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
The mask ordinance requires people to wear a face covering in areas where social distancing is not possible. Residents are exempt if they have a documented or demonstrable medical condition that makes it difficult to wear a mask.
All plaintiffs, the party that brings a lawsuit to civil court, have physical and mental conditions that make it unsafe to wear masks, the complaint said. It also says the plaintiffs' right to travel and right to medical choice are violated because the order prevents them from accessing basic services, such as doctors or groceries.
“Who decides whether someone has a demonstrable or documented medical problem?” Eagle-Glenn said.
Mark Sexton, a spokesperson for Alachua County, declined to comment about the complaint but said a resident saying they have a medical condition is enough to qualify for the “demonstrable” exception.
The county has used social media and spoke with the press to explain its orders and COVID-19 actions to the public, he said. He also said the county’s Facebook posts have been viewed more than a million total times since the pandemic reached the county.
Included in the complaint are signed declarations from the five plaintiffs that describe how they were affected by the order.
Israel Ham, a U.S. Army veteran, wrote that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and severe anxiety because of his military service. He said he was denied a ride on the bus and a job interview because he was not wearing a mask.
Phillip Hooks, a Vietnam war veteran, wrote that he is diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety because of his military service. He said wearing a mask makes him hyperventilate and panic like if he’s suffocating. He said he was denied entrance to three Gainesville stores for not wearing a mask.
Tolar Powel wrote he suffers from asthma, fibromyalgia and PTSD because he was involved in a fatal car accident. He said he went to a Walgreens to pick up a prescription and was questioned by three different employees about his medical status. He said he was told to leave the store and was only allowed to pick up his prescription from the drive-thru window. He couldn't shop for other items in the store.
Sexton said people shouldn’t have been turned away from businesses if they weren’t wearing a mask and express that they have a condition. He said he did not know of any business-specific standards that require people to wear masks regardless of their condition.
He said people who notice a store not following the order or allowing people with conditions into a store without a mask can make a report by calling 311.
However, the plaintiffs want the ordinance stricken in its entirety because they believe mandatory face masks can’t be enforced legally, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs also requested the county pay $100,000 in damages, as well as attorney fees and legal costs.
“We want the county to understand that what they are doing is unconstitutional,” Eagle-Glenn said.
Sexton said the county commissioners looked at 40 studies before it made wearing masks mandatory. He also said the county attorney believes the order is legal.
“Our board hasn’t put these things in place to arrest people, or to fine people or ticket people,” he said. “Their orders are about getting most people to do what is necessary to stem the tide of this virus.”