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So does the cook making my burger at a Tampa Bay restaurant have to wear a mask?

What about nude dancers? And why can't I find my favorite soda in stores? Here are some answers to your COVID-19 consumer questions.

We wonder if the Great Disinfectant Wipe Shortage of 2020 will ever end. We ruminate on restaurant risks. We try to make friends with our masks.

Tampa Bay Times writer Sue Carlton.
Tampa Bay Times writer Sue Carlton. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Large and small, there’s a lot to worry about lately. (Thank you, Captain Obvious.) And as the Tampa Bay Times consumer affairs reporter, I wanted to know what’s been on your mind about what we buy, eat, use and otherwise consume as we try to get through this unprecedented health crisis.

Using the community engagement tool for Hearken, a company that helps newsrooms write about what the public wants to know, we asked you to submit questions and then vote on the ones you most wanted answered. And from coronavirus concerns to soda shortages to our infamous strip clubs, you came through.

The readers’ choice winner, submitted anonymously: Are cooks in restaurants required to wear masks? As in, doesn’t the person about to grill my cheeseburger need to mask up first?

The answer around here is generally: Yes.

But also: No.

A food server wears a face mask as he waits on customers at the Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg.
A food server wears a face mask as he waits on customers at the Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg.

Executive orders currently in place for Hillsborough and Pasco counties say “all persons” inside a business must wear a nose-and-mouth-covering mask when not social-distancing from other people. That surely would apply to cooks working in busy kitchens.

Pinellas County’s mask ordinance addresses restaurants specifically, saying anyone working there must wear a face covering “at all times while on duty and directly or indirectly preparing food or beverage, or serving food or beverage, or having customer contact.”

So from fancy chefs to short-order cooks, that’s a yes on masks in those places. But how about neighboring counties that don’t have mask orders, such as Hernando?

There, it appears to be up to individual restaurants. The Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation has mandatory restaurant measures about limiting service, sanitizing and social distancing, but the list doesn’t mention masks. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration “generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work.”'

Here’s one restaurant’s take:

At O’Bricks, a popular spot in downtown Bradenton in Manatee County, masks were required for their more than 75 staffers in both the front and back of house even before a countywide mask mandate passed Monday.

“If wearing a mask protects our staff, their families and our customers, it is not an option to not wear one,” O’Bricks director of operations Bethany Carter told me.

Bottom line: Concerned consumers who want to know before they go to their favorite diner or pizzeria can call ahead to find out the restaurant’s practices.

Next question: A reader named Jack reports finding only limited Coca-Cola products in his regular stores. “Apparently there is an aluminum shortage?” he asked.

Et tu, carbonated beverages?
Et tu, carbonated beverages?

Jack, it would appear so.

Following the Great American Toilet Paper Forage and the supply-chain issues that have kept everything from flour to our favorite brand of tuna off the shelves, now this: Apparently we are drinking great vats of soda at home, which has drink companies and aluminum can producers scrambling.

“Beverages in convenient take-home packages like aluminum cans are particularly popular right now,” said Danielle Smotkin, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association. “And beverage company employees are doing all they can to make sure store shelves remain fully stocked.” Keep the faith, Jack.

Finally, a reader said that while driving by one of our area strip clubs, he “couldn’t help but wonder if the performers were required to wear a face mask.

Those local orders requiring masks for everyone inside a business would certainly seem to apply. For the on-the-ground answer, I went to Tampa strip club king Joe Redner, proprietor of the well-known Mons Venus club near Raymond James Stadium.

“Oh yeah. Everybody wears a mask,” Redner said. “Everybody that comes in, they give them a mask. Everybody in the building has to wear a mask at all times.”

A Tampa strip club in the time of coronavirus.
A Tampa strip club in the time of coronavirus. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And yes, the dancers wear fancier masks, he said. But they wear masks.

“It’s common sense,” Redner said.

Readers, please keep those questions coming. What else do you want to know? Tell me in the form below, or click here.


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