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DeSantis opens economy, but Tampa Bay’s local mask ordinances are still in effect

The reopening order removed municipalities' ability to fine individual violators. But mask requirements in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Tampa remain.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted coronavirus-related restrictions on business capacity and operations on Friday, his order did not repeal local mandates that require masks in indoor public places.

But the shift to the last phase of the state’s reopening plan has caused local government officials and business owners to have to reiterate face covering requirements that went into effect in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and Tampa earlier this summer — and remain in place today.

“Within 15 minutes of his announcement we had four groups of people walk in our door and say ‘we don’t have to wear masks anymore, the governor said so,'’” said Ken Hamilton, co-owner of Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach. “We said no, not exactly. That’s the unintended consequence of the governor’s order: turmoil.”

A sign outside asks patrons to wear masks while entering the restaurant until they are seated, at Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Clearwater.
A sign outside asks patrons to wear masks while entering the restaurant until they are seated, at Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Although DeSantis' Phase 3 reopening order did not lift city and county mask requirements, it took away those municipalities' ability to impose fines on individual violators. But officials in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Tampa say the enforcement strategy to date has been more educational than punitive anyway.

And while counties and cities may not impose penalties on individual violators, DeSantis' order does not appear to prohibit fines for businesses that are not enforcing the local rules.

“In the governor’s order, he prohibits penalties on individuals but not to businesses, so we strongly encourage businesses to require masks both for the safety of their employees and the safety of their patrons," Tampa spokesperson Ashley Bauman said.

Bauman said Tampa has not issued any citations for violations of its ordinance to date. Pinellas County’s largest agencies, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department, have issued no citations either. St. Petersburg Code Compliance has issued 109 citations for violators of the Pinellas County ordinance, while St. Petersburg police have issued 10, according to city spokesperson Ben Kirby.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Crystal Clark was not aware on Monday of any citations issued by the agency.

“We’ve had a lot of success in getting people to wear the masks without the sheriff going out, without having to give anyone a citation in the first place,” said Pinellas County attorney Jewel White.

Pinellas County’s ordinance also includes a clause requiring bar and restaurant patrons to be seated in order to be served, which remains in effect, White said.

Elizabeth Perez-Keene, owner of Pisces Sushi and Global Bistro in Dunedin, said almost 20 customers called following DeSantis’ announcement on Friday to make sure the restaurant would still enforce the mask ordinance.

But that evening, at least three parties left because they were still required to wear masks while walking to their table. Since the mandate went into effect on June 23, Perez-Keene said most customers have complied and welcomed the safeguard, although there have been instances of customers yelling or throwing masks at staff.

“I will do what I have to do to keep my employees and my guests safe,” Perez-Keene said.

Hamilton, co-owner of the Palm Pavilion, said he is concerned that the state’s reopening order will embolden more people to blatantly violate the county mask mandate, which allows customers to remove masks while eating and drinking.

Although the majority of customers have been compliant, Hamilton said his staff has dealt every day with people refusing to wear masks while entering and verbally assaulting the host or manager when they are asked to leave.

Paul Dawson, 51, an employee at ZaZoo'd, helps costumer, Michelle Rabinovitz, 40, of Tampa, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Paul Dawson, 51, an employee at ZaZoo'd, helps costumer, Michelle Rabinovitz, 40, of Tampa, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We’ve been challenged to fist fights, we’ve had physical altercations because the you-can’t-make-me crowd get their chests bowed up and get in my staff’s face,” Hamilton said. “The hosts get told they are idiots because they work for us. We will not continue to put our staff in jeopardy.”

Members of at least two Facebook groups with a combined 3,000 members, Pinellas Watch and Pinellas County for Mask Freedoms, routinely post about talking points to use to challenge the ordinance. They allege the ordinance is a Constitutional violation. Members post anecdotes about raising health conditions to avoid wearing masks.

The mask mandates in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Tampa have exemptions for people with valid health issues.

But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that exemption should not be abused.

“There are some who are anti-mask who use the (Americans with Disabilities Act) terminology without understanding it to try to get out from the requirement, and they are wrong,” Gualtieri said. “Show me in the Constitution where it says you have a right not to wear a mask.”

Gualtieri said the enforcement of the county mask ordinance while the state has allowed the full re-opening of businesses will continue to come down to education and self-responsibility.

“You’re never going to have 100 percent, but by and large, people are compliant,” he said.

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