Published On: Thu, Mar 25th, 2021

Boca Council sets $250 fine for littering of COVID masks, gloves

By: Dale King

The COVID pandemic may slowly be ebbing, but Boca Raton residents, by mandate of Palm Beach County, must still wear face coverings. Many folks also don gloves, face shields and other equipment to complete a protective barrier around themselves.

The Boca Raton City Council Tuesday night added COVID paraphernalia to the list of items considered by municipal ordinance as “litter” if they are tossed haphazardly onto sidewalks, into gutters, streets, waterways and other places.

In hopes of stemming the disposal of used COVID items anywhere within the city limits, the council adopted an ordinance that slaps a $250 fine on folks convicted of tossing away the masks, gloves and other materials designed to insulate us from coronavirus.

That’s five times the cost of the $50 littering fine for tossing away less offensive material – and two and a half times the fee for disposing of waste material in waterways, a payment which was hiked to $100 per offense Tuesday night. 

The council adopted the stiffer littering ordinance on a 5-0 vote.

Leading the effort to establish the tough fine for disposing of COVID paraphernalia with disregard was Councilman Andy Thomson, an avid runner who has racked up 100-plus miles trekking by foot around the city.

“As I’ve been running around the city, I have seen masks and gloves everywhere.” He said that while he racked up 100 foot-miles around the city, “I have picked up 308 pieces of PPE items.”

Even while driving to City Hall from his office a few miles away, the councilman said he saw “seven or eight more items” that were inappropriately disposed of.

“The CDC says we need to continue to wear masks,” he said. “Palm Beach County still has a mandate to wear masks. We’ll be wearing them for a while.”

He added: “People have to be aware of how they are disposing of these items. It is not just disrespectful, it is dangerous. People won’t pick these things up. They will stay around for a while.”

In a letter to council members, City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser said she prepared the ordinance at Thomson’s request to “address littering of face masks, gloves and other similar personal protection equipment.”  

The ordinance itself points out that “face masks, face shields, gloves and similar forms of personal protection equipment are currently in widespread use due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Littering of these items has greatly increased,” the document notes.

“In addition to discouraging littering generally,” the ordinance goes on, “the City Council desires to strongly discourage the improper disposal of personal protective equipment in order to, among other things, curb the spread of COVID-19.”

Council members, including Mayor Scott Singer, said they don’t expect to make a lot of money from the COVID disposal fine. “People only get fined if the offense is observed,” the council noted during discussion.

“I don’t want to make a dollar on the fines,” said Singer. “I just want to stop people from littering.”

Councilwoman Yvette Drucker noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis has lifted fines for COVID infractions under the current emergency regulation. In response, Frieser said the COVID litter law is not related to the emergency condition and will continue after pandemic-related regulations are no longer in effect.

“This is a great idea,” said Councilwoman Monica Mayotte. “The situation is out of control.”

Thomson suggested that the city take to social media and use enhanced signage to get the word out about the fine for misplaced used COVID gear.

Deputy Mayor Andrea Levine O’Rourke said she sees the protective equipment discarded in many places around the city. She said the ordinance is designed to tell the public that “we in Boca are not going to take it.”

Two people in the virtual gallery at Tuesday’s meeting spoke at the public hearing, and both favored the penalty.  “This waste can carry germs and bacteria,” said Jessica Gray Patterson.

Another man also spoke in favor.  City Clerk Susan Saxton said a person left a comment saying the mask mandate should be lifted.

Mayotte also questioned whether the stiff fine for littering COVID items should be lifted once the pandemic is over and the need for protective gear is not necessary.

Thomson suggested leaving the law on the books in case the population faces another type of health emergency in the future. “We could revisit it,” he said. “We could ask ourselves if it is necessary. But it’s necessary now.”

The new city law on littering says that improper disposal of COVID items is subject to a fine, whether or not the material is contaminated.

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