It started at the Fresh Market: The high-end grocer announced in April that not only would its employees have to wear face coverings, but its shoppers would, too.
Now customer face masks policies are becoming more the norm at retailers big and small reopening or operating during the COVID-19 outbreak. Local places ranging from book stores to the zoo have created similar policies of their own, either requiring or “strongly encouraging” customers to wear masks.
While some local governments have passed mask laws, Tampa Bay has no such mandate. That leaves mask requirements, and how to enforce them, up to each business. That also means there’s no penalty for not wearing a mask, other than being asked to leave a private business.
“That is the seller’s prerogative, and if customers do not like it, they can take their business elsewhere," said Tampa attorney Richard Blau.
Creating mask policies are within business owners’ rights, similar to requiring customers to wear shoes and a shirt to receive service. Blau said someone could attempt an argument that a law requiring a mask is against their constitutional rights, but that argument is irrelevant when it comes to what a private business asks of its customers.
Still, few businesses are turning people away if they don’t have a mask on, even if they have the right.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending the general public use face coverings, including those made from cloth, last month. Masks can help prevent people who are infected, including those who aren’t showing symptoms, from spreading the virus.
The Fresh Market on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg has a large sign out front: “Please do not enter without a face covering.”
Meghan Flynn, a spokeswoman for the Fresh Market, said the policy includes masks, scarves and bandannas. It began on April 10. Flynn said the store encourages those who can’t or are unwilling to wear a face covering to use their curbside pickup or Instacart delivery. She said stores have found the majority of shoppers follow the directive.
“We have not denied entrance to guests without a face covering, as we do not want to place our team members in a confrontational situation that could result in unintended consequences during an already trying time for many,” Flynn said.
Some retailers have said strongly encouraging masks, rather than requiring them, makes it so their employees aren’t expected to engage in what could become an uncomfortable encounter with a shopper.
Sara Katherine Ennis, owner of the Pink Palm in Tampa, reopened her boutique on Monday after being closed under previous state orders. She put a sign on the door that says she and her employees are following the guidelines and that they hope shoppers do the same.
Like others, she won’t refuse business to someone not wearing a mask.
“We have had people come up to the door, see the sign, go back to their car and put one on,” she said. “We really appreciate that.”
The shop owner has many older clients, a population especially vulnerable to the virus, and she wants to ensure they’r’e safe. She has only had a few shoppers come in without masks; most embrace the policy. One even gifted her some masks made from Lily Pulitzer prints, a brand her shop specializes in selling.
Signs outside of Walmart and Target now encourage the use of masks, too. CostCo Wholesale’s president Craig Jelinek wrote an open letter that made the chain’s stance on face coverings clear.
“This is not simply a matter of personal choice; a face covering protects not just the wearer, but others too,” he wrote.
And it’s not just retailers encouraging mask use.
ZooTampa is preparing for a June 1 opening. CEO Joe Couceiro says the zoo plans to hand out masks free of charge. Employees will wear them, too. Most of the park is out in the open, but the zoo likely will require mask use in specific parts of the zoo, like inside an indoor manatee pass-through.
“I understand you do not need a mask walking around the expansive zoo in the fresh air,” Couceiro said, “but if (guests) are going to be in any type of environment, like the manatee pass-through, then I want to make sure masks are required especially if the experts think that’s a good idea.”
At the Florida Aquarium, CEO Roger Germann said visitors will be encouraged to wear masks while staff and volunteers are required to wear them out in public spaces.
“My friends in parks overseas tell me that for people in Asia, wearing masks is no big deal,” he said.
That may slowly be becoming the case in the western world.
“We are asking guests to use common sense: Wear masks," Germann said.
Still, he said, the aquarium will stop short of requiring them for entry.
Times Staff Writer Sharon Wynne contributed to this report.
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