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‘Highly irate:’ Tampa Bay mask rules spur hundreds of police calls

Despite an array of local ordinances, enforcement varies wildly. Mostly, people are getting banned from stores.

TARPON SPRINGS — Bill Dunn spotted the woman at the Publix sub counter, leaning over the glass that guards the lettuce and tomatoes.

Another man stood nearby, waiting on his cold cuts.

Neither wore masks, despite a local order that mandates face coverings to enter a business.

Related: Mask blotter: Some of the many reason police get called over face coverings

“Why are they in the store?” Dunn, 65, recalled thinking. “I thought I was safe in a store like this.”

Dunn has diabetes and sometimes uses an oxygen machine. His health conditions put him at risk of dying should he catch the coronavirus. He takes mask use seriously.

What happened next is up for debate, though everyone involved agrees that Dunn is now banned from the Tarpon Springs Mall Publix.

A police report describes Dunn as “highly irate.” The Publix manager told officers he cursed at her and caused a scene.

Dunn admits he was loud, but he called the police report overblown. He just wanted employees to remind shoppers that masks were required.

“They said, ‘no, we are not enforcing the law,’ " Dunn said. “Well, then what are the rest of us supposed to do? This isn’t a matter of no shirts or shoes, it’s a public health crisis.”

A shopper is seen leaving the Publix Super Markets store located along U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Publix shopper Bill Dunn, 65, of Holiday, was banned from store after asking management why they were not enforcing mask use.
A shopper is seen leaving the Publix Super Markets store located along U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Publix shopper Bill Dunn, 65, of Holiday, was banned from store after asking management why they were not enforcing mask use. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

With most of Tampa Bay now subject to some sort of mandatory mask order, the Tampa Bay Times reviewed law and code enforcement records to get a sense of how that’s going.

Hundreds of complaint calls, disturbances and mostly verbal arguments have been reported over masks. At least a couple turned violent. All five mask orders across Tampa Bay counties and cities carry penalties up to $500. But only St. Petersburg appears to have fined anyone.

• • •

Unlike Dunn, who was kicked out of Publix over complaining about people not wearing masks, records show it’s usually the maskless person who ends up banned.

That’s what happened to the 27-year-old woman who argued with the manager of a Pinellas Park 7-Eleven. After the manager blocked her from entering without a mask, around 3 a.m. on July 7, he called police to say she’d spit on him. Surveillance video was inconclusive, the officer wrote, so there were no battery charges, but if the woman ever comes back, she could be cited for trespassing.

Same for the guy who can never return to a Pinellas Park Panda Express after refusing to mask up. (He told police he planned to file a “discrimination complaint.”) Or the 39-year-old woman who got “loud and abusive” in the checkout line after being told to wear a mask. She can no longer shop at the Pinellas Park Michael’s.

And the woman who told the octogenarian manager of an East Tampa laundromat she didn’t have to wear a mask because she knew the owner? Banned.

Authorities frequently have arrived to find the offender already gone, such as the guy wearing a flamingo shirt and no mask who walked into the Sulphur Springs bodega Mi Sol Cafe on the morning of June 23.

Related: Hillsborough changes its face-mask rule to remove criminal charges

When the clerk told him he had to cover his face, they argued. She tried selling him a mask. He instead threw money on the counter and cursed her out. When the customer leaned over the counter, the clerk later told police, she feared for her safety. So she threw a metal stool at him.

The man threw it back, a Tampa police report says, striking the clerk in the head. She was bruised but declined to file charges.

Often, law enforcement has determined there was no violation. In Tampa, police responded to several complaints where they explained to callers that people can go maskless indoors if they maintain a social distance of 6 feet. Someone called police to a Hillsborough Avenue Waffle House to complain diners weren’t in masks. Police explained you don’t have to wear one while eating.

Cities and counties have different rules and levels of enforcement. Pinellas County’s ordinance allows for customers and employees to be issued a civil citation, but businesses are under no obligation to enforce the mask rule.

Pinellas received 68 complaints about mask non-compliance through its County Information Center as of July 8, but enforcement is up to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. So far, it has not issued a citation. A sheriff’s spokeswoman said they’re focused on educating the public. The Sheriff’s Office isn’t tracking the number of complaints they’ve received.

Clearwater, which falls under the Pinellas order, also has not ticketed anyone.

“I think our approach is that the police department is not the most effective tool to use as enforcement in this scenario,” Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said. “This is a period of time where people are questioning if police are involved in too many things.”

Clearwater police do have a small team that inspects bars and restaurants for compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, fined 109 businesses $100 in the first 14 days of its citywide mask order. (Fines go up to $250 or $500 on subsequent offenses). The city’s ordinance puts the responsibility on businesses to police customers’ and employees’ mask-wearing habits. It’s being enforced via inspections of every business by code enforcement officers and the fire department. Any mask fines so far have been due to employees not wearing them.

Businesses that have been mailed fines or soon will be mailed fines under the city ordinance, according to a partial list provided by code enforcement, include a Publix on 66th Street, two CVS drugstores, a Tires Plus garage, Banana’s Records, the Autonation Ford car lot, Pinch a Penny pool supplies and multiple barber shops. Restaurants like 4th Street Pizza, Jack’s London Grill and Courigan’s pub also were cited.

St. Petersburg police aren’t involved with inspections, but officers do respond to mask complaints if they come in at night.

In Pasco County, violations are handled by the code enforcement team. They’d received 98 complaints and proactively inspected more than 2,200 businesses, as of July 8, without issuing a citation.

“Our goal is not to run around handing out fines,” said Pasco spokeswoman Tambrey Laine. “We’re just trying to cut down on the spread.”

Pasco deputies have responded to some mask-related calls that involved disturbances, such as the maskless man who employees said circled Advance Auto Parts, threatening to ram his truck into the building because he'd been denied entry.

In Tampa, both businesses and individuals can get a civil citation. Code inspectors and police are working together on enforcement, but no citations had been handed out as of July 9. Same for Hillsborough County, where on Monday the Emergency Policy Group decided to expand enforcement from deputies alone, to a joint effort with code enforcement. No citations yet.

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

Across the state, the Florida Department of Agriculture has fielded more than 800 complaints since March 1 related to COVID-19 practices at businesses that customers found unfair or usafe. Many complaints centered around mask use, or lack thereof — so much so the agency has created a new way to separate mask complaints in its coding system.

A man in a Fort Myers Costco was recorded screaming at another shopper who asked him to follow the store’s rules to wear a mask. After the video went viral, the man was fired from his job as an insurance salesman.

In places where the responsibility falls on businesses to handle mask situations, most have put up signs that remind shoppers of the rules. Publix has free masks available upon request at its customer service desk. Southeastern Grocers, which owns Winn-Dixie and Fresco y Más, says it has stationed employees at its doors to remind shoppers to use masks. Walmart has a similar protocol. It’s also offering de-escalation training to its employees.

Businesses have said that it’s unfair to expect retail employees to confront people over what has become, for some, a heated and politicized issue of personal rights.

Brandon Antonius, 29, works at a Home Depot in Clearwater. His job requires handling floor samples and close contact with shoppers. He lives with his grandmother, who suffers from lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. She’s at a higher risk of death should she contract COVID-19.

Related: Masks are dividing Florida’s Republican leaders as coronavirus outbreak spreads

In April, Antonius took a paid leave because of his grandmother’s vulnerability. He went back to work for a short time, only to opt for a three-month unpaid leave once Florida’s COVID-19 cases continued to climb.

A part-time worker at his location tested positive already, he said, and shoppers showed up without masks or were wearing them under their chins.

“We cannot enforce the (mask order) as employees, and managers don’t feel like it’s worth the risk,” Antonius said.

He said he’s privileged that he can take unpaid leave because of his family’s support. He has co-workers with kids and mortgages who don’t have that option.

Antonius wants to see a statewide law about masks. Maybe then, he said, people will listen.

“This has become a political issue, and it should be a public health issue,” said Dr. Larry Feinman, the chief medical officer at HCA West Florida. “Viruses cross borders, they have no political leaning, they just infect anyone they can infect.”

Dunn, the man banned from Publix after his encounter, has started shopping at Walmart. He doesn’t find shoppers there to be much better at following the mask orders.

But he doesn’t see the point in speaking up again. He’s worried he’ll get thrown out.

• • •

Best practice with face masks

• Masks should cover a person’s nose and mouth to be effective.

• Don’t pull it down to talk.

• Avoid touching your face and the mask.

• Throw disposable masks away after one use.

• Wash cloth masks after one use.

Correction: An earlier version of the headline on this story read “Tampa Bay mask rules spur hundreds of 911 calls” and was inaccurate. There were hundreds of calls to police across the Tampa Bay area, but most came via a non-emergency line.

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