A Gainesville attorney has threatened the county with a federal civil rights lawsuit in response to the controversial COVID-19 face mask emergency order.
Attorney Raemi Eagle-Glenn sent a letter to Alachua County commissioners Wednesday that threatened a lawsuit if the commissioners don't rescind the COVID-19 face mask order by Friday.
The mask ordinance requires people to wear a face covering in areas where social distancing is not possible, like in retail stores. People with medical conditions or disabilities making it difficult to wear a mask, as well as those ages 6 and under, are exempt.
Eagle-Glenn’s letter says the county’s order discriminates against people who have medical conditions or disabilities by pressuring them to stay home. She said residents are being forced to explain their medical conditions to someone who isn’t their doctor before entering a business.
Since the order took effect Monday, Eagle-Glenn said she received dozens of calls and complaints. She is currently consulting 12 people who were affected by the order.
“I’ve received more calls in the past two days for my legal services than I have all year,” she said.
One of Eagle-Glenn’s clients, whose name she omitted, called after she was denied entrance to an auto supply store. The client told Eagle-Glenn she didn’t wear a mask because she suffers from a mental illness as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes panic attacks whenever she wears a mask.
Eagle-Glenn said her client is now hesitant to leave her home.
“She said she did not even want to try to go and buy deodorant at Walmart because why go through the stress and the hassle,” she said.
According to Eagle-Glenn, the order violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires the US government to treat everyone equally under the law, and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires states treat everyone equally. Together, they require that state and local governments govern people equally regardless of their differences.
“Laws have to apply to all citizens equally,” Eagle-Glenn said. “And this law is having an unequal and unfair effect on people who have conditions or people that are poor and cannot wear masks.”
The order has also led store employees to question people without masks about their medical conditions, she said. To Eagle-Glenn, the order also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act as residents are forced to disclose their medical information to someone who's not a medical professional.
The face mask order also discriminates against people not wearing masks in businesses, according to Eagle-Glenn. She said not wearing a mask in public will expose those with medical conditions and disabilities.
“You get into a store without a mask, it’s like you have a scarlet letter,” she said.
When asked about the potential lawsuit, Mark Sexton, spokesperson for Alachua County, declined to comment. However, Sexton said the county attorney's office believes the ordinance is legal.
“We obviously wouldn’t have put out an order that we didn’t think would stand legal muster,” he said.
County commissioners are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice about face masks, he said, adding that businesses aren't supposed to ask for a doctor’s note or details about the medical condition. Sexton recommended people with medical conditions who are refused entry to a business contact the county so that a county representative can explain the order to the business.
“We want to get this county opened up as soon as possible, and if wearing masks helps us do that by keeping our numbers low and preventing a rebound of this disease, then we think that’s a wise step,” Sexton said.
As of Thursday afternoon, Eagle-Glenn said she hadn't received a response from the county. Her next step is to draft a civil complaint to submit on Monday or Tuesday if the ordinance is not rescinded.
“I don’t want to spend my weekend drafting a federal civil rights complaint,” she said. “But I have done it before, and I will have to do it again.”