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COVID-19 cases are spiking again. How are Tampa Bay restaurants handling?

A recent increase in cases and infections has some Tampa Bay restaurant owners reconsidering mask mandates.
Server Hanna Holt, center, discusses the lunch menu with Dana Nafe of Tampa, left, Terianne Curcia of Apollo Beach, and Jolie Marjama of Wesley Chapel, right, on July 27 at Ulele in Tampa. Ulele owner Richard Gonzmart has requested that all staff return to wearing face masks at work as COVID-19 cases surge.
Server Hanna Holt, center, discusses the lunch menu with Dana Nafe of Tampa, left, Terianne Curcia of Apollo Beach, and Jolie Marjama of Wesley Chapel, right, on July 27 at Ulele in Tampa. Ulele owner Richard Gonzmart has requested that all staff return to wearing face masks at work as COVID-19 cases surge. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 28

Like most other Tampa Bay business owners, Leslie Ciccone had started to let down her guard.

For months, she had a strict mask policy at her St. Petersburg dessert bar Swah-Rey. In accordance with the Pinellas County mask ordinance, both customers and employees were required to wear masks inside the store at all times.

But after the order was rescinded and local COVID-19 cases started to decrease, Ciccone — like many others in her line of work — started to roll back some of her policies. All of her employees were vaccinated, so she gave them the choice: Mask up if you feel more comfortable, but feel free to lose the face covering if you wish.

The masks mostly disappeared and business was steady. It felt like maybe — just maybe — the worst was over.

Then, last week, a surprise: Ciccone, feeling fluish and lethargic, tested positive for COVID-19.

Like her employees, Ciccone received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine several months ago. But the symptoms — extreme fatigue and body aches, a runny nose and a loss of smell — were impossible to ignore, and a test confirmed her fears.

Some people who have been fully vaccinated can still get COVID-19, though vaccines appear to be highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death from the virus. Six percent of Florida’s COVID-19 cases in the past month have been among vaccinated individuals, Weesam Khoury, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said in an emailed statement last week.

Ciccone considers herself lucky: She is quarantining at home, and credits the vaccine for her recovery. But the experience has left her jarred, and it’s prompted her to re-think how she runs her business going forward.

Joe Russo collects a tray of drinks from a table on July 27 at Ulele in Tampa.
Joe Russo collects a tray of drinks from a table on July 27 at Ulele in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

All of Swah-Rey’s employees are required to wear masks while working again. And following her experience, Ciccone said she thinks she’ll be masking up for the long haul whenever indoors, possibly “forever.”

“This seems like it’s just going to go on and on,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance suggesting that in areas with “substantial and high transmission” of the coronavirus, everyone should wear a mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status. It’s a reversal of their May announcement that vaccinated people could ditch the masks when inside.

Ciccone isn’t the only Tampa Bay restaurant owner grappling with how to handle the current surge in COVID-19 cases, and whether to require masks indoors. Coronavirus infections in Florida have tripled over the past two weeks, averaging 10,000 new cases daily. It’s the highest increase in cases since last summer’s deadly first wave of infections, and Florida currently accounts for one in five positive tests nationally.

Doug Dozark, owner of Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg, has firsthand knowledge of the topic. Dozark, who is fully vaccinated, contracted COVID-19 two weeks ago and has lost his sense of smell, he said. The 39-year-old planned to unveil some new beers at the brewery’s eight-year anniversary celebration, but his lack of smell forced him to postpone making them.

Given the CDC announcement, Dozark plans to talk with his staff and see what they are comfortable with. He thinks he will ask customers to mask up, but he’s not sure if the argument with patrons is worth it as long as there is no mask mandate. Dozark would like local or state officials to make a decision that he can follow, not put the decision on individual businesses.

“I don’t see why they are leaving this up to people who are wholly unqualified to a) determine what’s right and b) to enforce rules,” he said. All of his staff is vaccinated, though Dozark only encouraged it and did not mandate it. He is fully prepared to lock down and switch back to to-go orders only if that that will lead to “death to COVID.”

Server Jacqueline Tepale, left, brings a tray of drinks to a table while bar back Benjamin Holt, right, stocks wines during lunch service at Ulele in Tampa.
Server Jacqueline Tepale, left, brings a tray of drinks to a table while bar back Benjamin Holt, right, stocks wines during lunch service at Ulele in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Like Ciccone and Dozark, Columbia Restaurant Group owner Richard Gonzmart and his wife recently tested positive for COVID-19. Both Gonzmart and his wife are vaccinated.

On July 20, Gonzmart announced that, effective immediately, all employees at his restaurants would be required to wear masks while working. In a Facebook post, Gonzmart — who is recovering — credited the vaccines for their effectiveness and called the new measures a “proactive” step in combating the virus.

So far, only a few Tampa Bay restaurants have taken similar actions. At most local eateries this week, it was business as usual, a dining scene similar to pre-pandemic times: maskless employees and customers in dining rooms filled to capacity. But with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and the new CDC guidance, it’s possible that more restaurant owners will reconsider their approach.

At Willa’s in Tampa, owner Nate Siegel said they recently reinstated a mandatory mask policy for all employees regardless of their vaccination status. Customers are encouraged to wear masks, but not required. And though the restaurant was close to adding more tables to their inside dining area, Siegel said they’re holding off and still not operating at maximum capacity.

Enforcing masks for customers is a much stickier issue. It can be an uphill battle, Ciccone said.

“If you knew how many one-star reviews I had from our previous mask policy,” she said, citing negative messages from customers left on social media sites like Yelp and Facebook. “There are reviews that don’t even mention the food.”

Absent any city, county or state mask mandate, Ciccone said it’s extremely difficult for employees like hers to shoulder the burden of mask enforcement. Having to deal with unruly customers who refuse to wear a mask was incredibly taxing, she said.

“I certainly felt pressured to change, and left it to the staff to decide as a group,” she said. “I talked to at least a half-dozen other business owners and we’re all kind of in the same place. It’s tough — everything is easier if there’s governmental help.”

Dozark echoed Ciccone’s sentiment.

“We’re customer service for God’s sake. We’re not equipped for that,” he said.

Hannah Critchfield and Jake Piazza contributed to this report.