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Businesses largely complying with mask orders, with a few exceptions

Jaymi Butler

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Masks
Pinellas County's mask mandate has been in effect since June and has been controversial for some residents who feel it infringes on their constitutional rights.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to rise, the City of St. Petersburg is taking a proactive approach to ensure businesses are doing their part to keep the community safe.

James Corbett, director of the city’s Codes Compliance Assistance Department, said his team of 22 investigators is going door to door at businesses in the city’s 21 zones. They’re checking to see if businesses have posted their COVID mitigation plan at the front door and that employees are wearing masks. Both measures are required under executive orders from Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“If we notice the business doesn’t have a mitigation plan developed and on display, we give them seven days before we go back,” Corbett said. “If we observe an employee without a mask, we’re issuing citations without a warning.”

The citation goes to the business, not to the employee, Corbett explained. The first violation results in a $100 fine. The second is $250 and anything after that is $500. There have not been any second violations discovered yet, Corbett said.

Investigators have completed just over 1,600 inspections since they first started going door to door on June 19, Corbett said, and they’ve received eight complaints via the city’s non-emergency number. So far, there have been only 45 violations, the bulk of which involved restaurants and retailers.

While Corbett’s department handles the bulk of the enforcement, the St. Pete Police Department assists during evening hours. Sandra Bentil, spokeswoman for the St. Pete Police Department, said they’ve only issued two citations, both coming as a result of complaints. St. Pete Fire Rescue is also pitching in in areas outside downtown.

“If a business isn’t complying with the mayor’s directive, we’ll report them to code enforcement,” he said.

The responses by business owners found to be in violation have not always been positive, which Corbett understands.

“Everyone’s tense,” he said. “I’ve explained to my staff that they have to be cognizant of the situation, but generally speaking, people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it so they’re trying to comply.”

On the flip side, Corbett said, his investigators have been approached by customers during their checks to thank them for the work they’re doing.

Investigators are not enforcing mask wearing among patrons, at least for now.

“We’re trying to avoid pitting businesses against their customers,” Corbett said. “If they see a patron who’s not wearing a mask, they can call the non-emergency line (727-893-7780).”

St. Pete Fire Rescue is also focusing on the requirement that employees wear masks rather than trying to enforce it among patrons. 

Pete Boland, co-owner of Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern and The Galley, said his tavern was recently visited by an investigator. It was a quick interaction because Boland had his COVID mitigation plan posted at the door, along with an employee staffing the entrance to remind people to wear masks. All his employees wear masks, and they have extras on hand for anyone who needs one. He hasn’t encountered any pushback from employees or customers regarding mask wearing.

“Most people understand that we’re all in the same spot,” Boland said. “We just want to get through it and get back to normal.”

More than 6,800 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Pinellas County as of Wednesday, with 172 deaths. 

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