ST. PETERSBURG — It was a warm and breezy Thursday evening at the St. Pete Pier, and a collection of diners reached for their masks as they lined up outside Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille.
It was, by now, a familiar scene. Once they got inside, however, things were not as they expected.
None of the employees were wearing masks. Neither were any of the guests. One by one, the would-be diners looked around, confused.
“So, are masks just not a thing in St. Pete anymore?” asked a man waiting to be seated.
“Not here, they aren’t,” replied an employee at the restaurant.
Diners at Doc Ford’s were hardly the only ones feeling confused that day: Within hours of Thursday’s announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most settings, residents and businesses across the Tampa Bay area began grappling with the news.
For some restaurant and bar owners, the decision to ditch masks offered a welcome respite following a nearly year-long battle with customers over pandemic-related restrictions. But for many others, the sudden reversal came as a shock, sending business owners scrambling to figure out — once again — how to keep their staff and customers safe.
“This surprising announcement from the CDC made us all cringe,” said Pia Goff, who owns Gulfport Italian restaurant Pia’s Trattoria. “We are so tired of being the COVID-19 punching bag … We don’t want to play babysitters for guests who care less about their own health and others.”
Goff said that her employees — all of whom are vaccinated — are still wearing masks. For now, the staff are still encouraging guests to wear masks while moving around the restaurant, but “won’t make a fuss” if someone doesn’t comply with the rules.
The announcement followed an executive order signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 3, which suspended all county- and city-issued mask mandates along with other pandemic-related restrictions. By the time the CDC guidance was released, several local bars and restaurants — including Doc Ford’s — had already ditched the mask mandate at their establishments.
Doc Ford’s owner Mark Marinello said the response from customers has been “overwhelmingly positive.” As for his staff, Marinello said the decision to no longer require masks for employees was also welcomed.
“They wanted the masks off,” Marinello said. “It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to work in that environment with a mask on.”
Marinello said he wasn’t making vaccinations mandatory for his staff and said he did not know how many employees had been vaccinated. He said “a number” of the restaurant’s employees had already recovered from COVID-19 and were perhaps less concerned about getting the vaccine or contracting the virus again.
Pete Boland, who owns the Galley and Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern in downtown St. Petersburg, said he dropped the mask requirement for his staff a few days after Pinellas County rescinded the county-wide mask mandate. Boland said he welcomed the recent developments as a business owner, calling it a “happy time” for both his staff and customers.
“We waited a couple of days to see how people felt,” Boland said. “It’s kind of clear that the choice is with the customer. I don’t think there should be any judgment either way.”
Many said dropping the mask requirement is a huge relief to staff who had long become weary of policing mask-averse patrons, which often came with negative effects on their tips.
“That was the biggest issue,” said Benjamin Nichols, who owns de Bine Brewing Co. in Palm Harbor and recently dropped the mask requirement at his taproom. “Pinellas County tried to make us law enforcement.”
Nichols said his business received multiple bad reviews online related to mask protocol and recalled one particularly unruly customer who made sheep noises at several bartenders when they asked him to cover his face.
“The staff, they don’t want to be yelled at and cussed at because they’re asking (customers) to wear a mask,” Nichols said. “Now, we don’t have to regulate it.”
The decision to require masks is entirely up to the private business owner now, and across the Tampa Bay area, it’s still largely a mixed bag.
At Tampa’s Hyde Park Village on Sunday afternoon, staff at Forbici Modern Italian, Bartaco and On Swann were all wearing masks while employees at Meat Market and Clean Juice were not. Over the weekend, the downtown St. Petersburg bar scene in the 200 block of Central Avenue showcased a similarly varied response, with employees at several bars ditching masks and others encouraging their staff and patrons to mask up when not seated.
Celine Duvoisin, who owns Valhalla Bakery in St. Petersburg and Orlando, said she expects it is only a matter of time before more business owners feel pressured to drop their mask mandates in order to continue to attract customers.
She decided to pull back on her shops’ mask policies after an upsetting incident at the Orlando location over the weekend involving an aggressive customer who refused to put on a mask and yelled disparaging and homophobic insults at an employee.
“The divide that this is causing and the trauma that this is causing my staff is insane,” Duvoisin said.
Duvoisin said her employees now “request” but don’t require that customers wear masks inside her bakeries, a decision that she said feels forced. She said recent response from some customers who didn’t want to wear masks left her wary of an internet backlash.
“We can’t just ban them,” she said. “They will rally against you. They’re going to absolutely ruin you on your social media.”
Duvoisin also pointed to the inherent risks posed to her customer-facing staff and said she feared for her employees’ wellbeing, not all of whom are fully vaccinated yet.
“You want to make sure that people feel comfortable and safe,” Duvoisin said. “But there’s a point where you can only take so much abuse.”