ST. PETERSBURG – It was a hot and windy Thursday night at St. Pete Pier, and a collection of diners grabbed their masks as they lined up outside Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille.
It was now a familiar scene. Once inside, however, things didn’t go as planned.
None of the employees wore a mask. None of the guests either. One by one, the potential diners looked around, confused.
“So aren’t masks a thing in St. Pete anymore?” asked a man who was waiting to sit down.
“Not here, they are not,” replied a restaurant employee.
The diners at Doc Ford weren’t the only ones feeling confused that day: Within hours of Thursday’s announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most settings, residents and businesses in the area of Tampa Bay began to struggle with the news.
For some restaurant and bar owners, the decision to ditch the masks has offered a welcome respite after a nearly year-long battle with customers over the restrictions linked to the pandemic. But for many others, the sudden reversal was a shock, causing business owners to scramble to figure out – once again – how to keep their staff and customers safe.
âThis surprising CDC announcement made us all cringe,â said Pia Goff, owner of Gulfport’s Italian restaurant Pia’s Trattoria. âWe’re so tired of being the COVID-19 punch bagâ¦ We don’t want to play babysitters for clients who care less about their health and others.â
Goff said his employees – who are all vaccinated – still wear masks. For now, staff still encourage patrons to wear masks when moving around the restaurant, but “won’t make a fuss” if someone doesn’t play by the rules.
The announcement followed an executive order signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on May 3, which suspended all mask warrants issued by counties and cities and other restrictions related to the pandemic. By the time the CDC guidelines were released, several local bars and restaurants – including Doc Ford – had already abandoned the mask mandate at their establishments.
Doc Ford owner Mark Marinello said customer response had been “overwhelmingly positive”. As for his staff, Marinello said the decision to no longer require masks for employees was also welcomed.
âThey wanted the masks taken off,â Marinello said. “It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to work in this environment with a mask on.”
Marinello said he does not make vaccinations mandatory for his staff and that he does not know how many employees have been vaccinated. He said a “number” of restaurant workers have already recovered from COVID-19 and may be less concerned about getting the vaccine or contracting the virus again.
Pete Boland, who owns Galley and Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern in downtown St. Petersburg, said he dropped the mask requirement for his staff days after Pinellas County canceled the warrant county-wide mask. Boland said he welcomes the recent developments as a business owner, calling it a âhappy timeâ for his staff and clients.
âWe waited a few days to see how people were feeling,â Boland said. âIt’s pretty clear that the choice is up to the customer. I don’t think there should be judgment anyway.
Many said they were dropping the mask requirement is a huge relief for the staff who had long been tired of monitoring customers averse to masks, which often took a toll on their tips.
âThat was the biggest problem,â said Benjamin Nichols, who owns Bine Brewing Co. in Palm Harbor and recently dropped the mask requirement in his boardroom. “Pinellas County tried to enforce the law on us.”
Nichols said his company had received several bad online reviews related to the mask protocol and recalled a particularly unruly customer who made sheepish sounds at several bartenders when asked to cover his face.
âThe staff, they don’t want to be yelled at and insulted for asking (customers) to wear a mask,â Nichols said. “Now we don’t have to regulate it.”
The decision to require masks is entirely up to the owner of the private business now, and in the Tampa Bay area, it’s still largely mixed.
Sunday afternoon at Hyde Park Village in Tampa, the staff at Forbici Modern Italian, Bartaco and On Swann all wore masks, unlike the workers at Meat Market and Clean Juice. Over the weekend, the downtown St. Petersburg bar scene in the 200 block of Central Avenue presented an equally varied response, with employees at several bars ditching masks and others encouraging their staff and their customers to hide when they are not seated.
CÃ©line Duvoisin, owner of Valhalla bakery in St. Petersburg and Orlando, said she hopes it’s only a matter of time before more business owners feel pressured to give up their mask mandates in order to continue attracting customers.
She decided to remove mask policies from her stores after a shocking incident in Orlando over the weekend involving an aggressive customer who refused to put on a mask and shouted derogatory, homophobic slurs at an employee.
“The rift this causes and the trauma it causes to my staff is insane,” said Duvoisin.
Duvoisin said his employees are now ‘asking’ but not requiring customers to wear masks in her bakeries, a decision that she says feels forced. She said the recent response from some customers who did not want to wear masks had left her weary of negative reactions on the internet.
âWe cannot just ban them,â she said. âThey will rally against you. They will absolutely ruin you on your social networks. “
Duvoisin also highlighted the inherent risks posed to her staff in contact with customers and said she fears for the well-being of her employees, who are not yet fully vaccinated.
âYou want to make sure people feel comfortable and safe,â Duvoisin said. “But there comes a time when you can only accept too much abuse.”