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Tampa businesses say mask orders put enforcement burden on low-wage workers

From coffee shops to bowling alleys, business owners say Hillsborough County's order, especially, puts too much onus and possible penalties on employees.

TAMPA — Nate Young’s employees are used to handling the typical customer service mishaps at coffee shop and brewery King State: missing orders, long waits, fumbled drinks.

But the polarizing politics around mask use wasn’t something they were prepared, or trained, to manage. Customer service has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the stakes feel higher than ever.

New local orders mean workers can no longer just encourage mask use. In some case they have to enforce it.

The Hillsborough County mask order in particular, which went into force Wednesday evening, calls for businesses and their employees to not only deny entry to those without masks but “require or compel” those mask-less patrons to leave. Failure to do so could mean a $500 fine or up to two months in jail.

Pasco County similarly puts the requirement on business owners, but without the threat of jail. Others, such as Pinellas County, hold customers who violate the order responsible.

A man works on his laptop with his mask nearby, at King State Coffee in Tampa on Thursday, Business patrons are allowed to take off their masks if they're eating or drinking.. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Local business owners say they’re in favor of mask use, but the wording of Hillsborough County’s order puts too much pressure on an already stressed and struggling workforce. The person refusing to wear the mask is the one who should be fined, business owners said, not their employees or managers.

“I’m all about masks,” Young said, “but asking my employees to enforce something that’s already heavily heated between people? It’s not as simple asking to wipe your feet at the door.”

National and state health officials have said mask use can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, especially from those who may not be aware they’re infected. But masks, their required use and how much they slow the spread of the virus has been debated over Facebook statuses and in grocery store lines for weeks.

Related: Hillsborough approves mask order for businesses

A now viral video that surfaced this week from an Orlando Walmart shows a maskless shopper shove his way past a worker after being told he needed to wear a mask. In May, police in Michigan said a security guard at a Family Dollar was shot and killed after an altercation over a shopper without a face mask.

At his Brandon bowling alley on Wednesday night, Jeff Boje says one of his bartenders was cussed out over a mask. Boje and his family own Brandon Crossroads Bowl and the Alley at SouthShore in Riverview and have been running the alleys for three decades.

Catherine Bliss works behind the counter at Brandon Crossroads Bowl on Thursday, the first day for employees enforcing costumers to wear masks under a Hillsborough County rule. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Boje said his employee told a man playing pool he needed to put on a mask in order to stay inside. Boje said the man responded by becoming irate, breaking a pool stick over his knee and throwing it at the bartender. He stormed out of the bowling alley and was gone before his employees could even think to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Boje said.

“These are people making $10 to $12 an hour and they’re supposed to put up with people spitting in their faces, cussing and throwing pool sticks at them?”

Some members of his bowling league also quit for the summer over the mask rule.

The Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group created the rule on Monday, putting it into to place with a 5-3 vote. At first the order, like several others throughout the state, called for customers to be penalized. But Temple Terrace acting Mayor Andy Ross, a former sheriff’s deputy, said law enforcement officers are tasked with too much to also become the “mask police.”

The head of that policy group, County Commissioner Les Miller, did not want to create an order that had no mechanism of enforcement because people would ignore it. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Miller said if individuals notice businesses are flouting the order, they can contact law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office said businesses dealing with conflict over face masks can call its non-emergency line, but the office would not comment further on the order.

Curt Hensley wears his mask while working behind the coffee bar at King State Coffee in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Sheriff Chad Chronister voted against the order and called mask use a personal choice during Monday’s meeting. Even without customer penalties in the order, he still called it a burden to law enforcement.

Florida added more than 5,000 coronavirus cases for the second day in a row Thursday. That brought the total since March up to 114,018 cases. On Wednesday, Florida made up about 15 percent of the 36,880 cases reported nationwide.

“The reason we did this is because the number of cases in Hillsborough County is growing,” Miller said. “It’s not about trying to hurt small business or hurt business, it about containing the spread of the disease.”

Miller said, ideally, businesses would just be able to inform a person they need to wear a mask and that person would either comply or leave without being violent or combative.

Boje attended the virtual policy group meeting on Thursday to encourage the board to reconsider the language of the order. During that meeting Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively said the group should reconsider the provision that puts the enforcement onus on businesses.

”There have been several unintended consequences,‘' she said.

It will be considered when the Emergency Policy Group reconvenes June 29.

“Law enforcement is saying they can’t enforce this, so to turn around and then say... let’s take the owners and employees and turn them into our law enforcement agency, that makes no sense,” Boje told the Times.

People bowl at Brandon Crossroads Bowl on Thursday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Boje and other businesses shuttered because of the virus are struggling to stay solvent with their employees only recently returning to work and a pay check.

Scott Shalley, president of the Florida Retail Federation, said his organization shares concerns raised about the Hillsborough order. Beyond that, he said Florida retailers are dealing with a patchwork of legislation that can differ by county and city. He’d prefer a statewide order so businesses had consistency.

Young, the coffee shop and brewery owner, said he thinks it’s unlikely any of his workers would have deputies called on them over a customer without a mask. But he said whether or not it actually happens, that doesn’t change the burden and anxiety put on his staff.

The way the order is written, they could be on the hook. There’s little comfort in that, he said.

Times Staff Writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect which store a shooting in Michigan took place.

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