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With government mask orders gone, Tampa Bay businesses decide whether to keep theirs

The decision of whether to require masks and social distancing now falls to business owners, resulting in a patchwork of individual polices business to business across Tampa Bay.
Ace Englert, 30, who is visiting Dunedin from Denver, Colorado leaves Back in the Day Books Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Dunedin. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending local COVID-19 restrictions but Back in the Day Books owner Boe Rushing will still enforce the rule.
Ace Englert, 30, who is visiting Dunedin from Denver, Colorado leaves Back in the Day Books Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Dunedin. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending local COVID-19 restrictions but Back in the Day Books owner Boe Rushing will still enforce the rule. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 4
Updated May 5

There is a friendly sign outside Back in the Day Books, reminding customers they must wear a mask if they want to browse the shelves of Boe Rushing’s shop on Dunedin’s Main Street.

Rushing enforced his rule early in the pandemic, before Pinellas County adopted its ordinance on June 23 that mandated face coverings in most indoor public places to stem the spread of coronavirus.

And Rushing’s policy will remain for the time being, even after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on Monday that he said immediately invalidated local government pandemic-related restrictions, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties’ mask mandates.

“I’m not going to make my decision based on what local and state politicians are saying. I’m going to make my decision based on what the epidemiologists are recommending, which is to continue to wear masks and social distance,” Rushing said.

Boe Rushing, 53, owner of Back in the Day Books poses for a photograph Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Dunedin. “Now it’s going to be totally on us,” said Rushing. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending “local COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on individuals and businesses.”
Boe Rushing, 53, owner of Back in the Day Books poses for a photograph Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Dunedin. “Now it’s going to be totally on us,” said Rushing. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending “local COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on individuals and businesses.” [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

After DeSantis’ action to supersede local governments’ pandemic rules, the decision of whether to require masks and social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic now falls to business owners. Restaurants, bars and shops across Tampa Bay adjusted to the new way of operating on Tuesday, resulting in a patchwork of individual polices business to business.

Pilar Ferraz, who opened The Healthy Hive smoothie and juice bar in Clearwater early last year, said she will not require customers to wear masks in light of the governor’s order, in an effort to not polarize customers and risk losing business. She said she will ask that customers stay six feet apart, which she sees as an easy request.

“It’s been really politicized and we are just trying to not have any confrontation with our customers,” Ferraz said. “We opened during the pandemic and we can’t really afford to have those conflicts.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he is encouraging residents to respect business owners’ right to enact their own mask and social distance policies and to not challenge them. He said business owners have the right to ask any customer to leave for any reason as long as it’s not discriminatory, similar to having a no-shirt, no-shoes, no-service policy.

“In those circumstances, people should respect the property owner, the business owner’s right to allow in or not allow in anyone on their terms,” Gualtieri said.

Many anti-mask advocates who demanded Pinellas County officials rescind the face covering mandate have alleged discrimination over medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.

Gualtieri said the Americans with Disabilities Act is narrow and does not provide a blanket exemption for most ailments.

“If they don’t want you on their property, you are going to end up having to leave their property,” Gualtieri said. “If they don’t leave, they can be arrested for trespassing.”

In September, DeSantis rescinded local governments’ ability to fine individuals for violating mask mandates, but he did not eliminate municipalities’ ability to penalize businesses that fail to enforce the ordinance in their establishments. However before the state’s elimination of local restrictions this week, Pinellas and Hillsborough officials had largely depended on education, rather than citations, to enforce their mask mandates.

In February, 18 medical professionals from Tampa Bay hospitals, health centers and university programs provided a joint letter of advice urging local governments maintain the mask requirements until Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties hit a seven-day average positivity rate of 3 percent or less for four consecutive weeks.

The seven-day average positivity rates on Tuesday were about 8 percent in Hillsborough, 7 percent in Pasco and 4 percent in Pinellas counties. Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles lifted his mask mandate on April 5, citing the spread of vaccines.

Hillsborough County had enacted its mask ordinance in June.

April Moise, owner of Chateau De Curb Gear /BLCKcamile in Valrico, said she hoped that the governor’s lifting of local mandates will make more people feel comfortable browsing clothing boutiques like hers again.

April Moise, owner of Chateau De Curb Gear /BLCKcamile in Valrico, in her store.
April Moise, owner of Chateau De Curb Gear /BLCKcamile in Valrico, in her store. [ Courtesy of April Moise ]

Moise plans to continue to wear a mask while running her store, but she said it will no longer be mandatory for customers. Even with the restriction lifted, Moise said no customer on Tuesday morning was unmasked and nobody commented on the changes.

“It’s so new and people are still being a little cautious,” she said.

Luigi Gallace, co-owner of Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach, has been taking advice from his daughter, who worked as a COVID-19 intensive care unit nurse and is now a COVID compliance officer for a film and TV production company.

Luigi Gallace, 58, takes a reservation while working Tuesday, May 4, 2021 at is restaurant Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach. “I want people to feel comfortable and safe no matter what side you are on,” said Gallace. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending “local COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on individuals and businesses.”
Luigi Gallace, 58, takes a reservation while working Tuesday, May 4, 2021 at is restaurant Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach. “I want people to feel comfortable and safe no matter what side you are on,” said Gallace. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order on Monday immediately ending “local COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on individuals and businesses.” [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

Gallace said the restaurant has expanded its outdoor seating options and staff will continue to wear masks. Customers who don’t have a mask will be given one, he said.

”My ultimate goal is making people feel comfortable,” Gallace said.