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Jacksonville Mandates Face Masks, As It Prepares To Host Trump At GOP Convention

Jacksonville, Fla., is now requiring people to wear face masks while indoors and in public spaces where they can't stay 6 feet away from other people, hoping to slow a spike in coronavirus cases.

"Every person over the age of six (6) who is in a public space shall wear a face mask or covering when not able to engage in social distancing,"the mandate states.

The rule does not apply to people who can't wear a mask due because of medical reasons. It took effect late Monday in Jacksonville and Duval County, which share a unified government.

In the past week, Duval County repeatedly broke records for daily new coronavirus cases, breaking the 700-case mark as it set new highs on several consecutive days, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.

More than 6,200 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Duval County, including 64 deaths.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had been criticized for his response to the COVID-19 crisis — particularly his order to partially reopen beaches in April, only one month into a broad shutdown. At the time, Florida's death toll from the virus was reaching new peaks.

Curry has worn a mask at high-profile events, and he has urged others to follow health experts' advice to cover their faces. But he has also spoken against adopting a face mask mandate.

"I support and wear a mask in populated spaces," Curry said via Twitter last week. But he added, "Group think says universal, mandated mask wearing is the answer."

Seeking to refute that idea, Curry said requiring masks "won't solve large groups of people congregating in bars, etc. that are violating reopening capacity requirements."

Hundreds of doctors in the Jacksonville area recently signed an open letter to Curry and the city council, urging them to require masks. The letter also said officials should postpone or drastically scale down the Republican National Convention, which Jacksonville is preparing to host in late August.

It's not yet clear how the rule might affect the convention.

"City officials said the mandate was still too far away from the RNC to determine if it'll have any impact on it," as member station WJCT reported.

The Republican convention was moved from North Carolina after President Trump disagreed with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over safety precautions for a massive public event during a pandemic.

"We are working with the local officials in Jacksonville to make sure we have a safe convention," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Tuesday.

In early June, Cooper wrote a letter to McDaniel saying it was "very unlikely" that North Carolina would allow a full-scale convention to proceed in Charlotte.

Citing the uncertainty about how the pandemic might unfold, Cooper said RNC officials should plan to hold "a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings."

When Jacksonville officials announced the new mask mandate, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams was asked how his department might deal with the face mask rule's requirements when the Republican National Convention takes place.

"Of course, if you're walking into a venue and you don't have a mask, you wouldn't be allowed in — off the top of my head, that's one of the quick and easy solutions to that. But we'll continue to work on all these plans as we get closer to it."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.