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Full Circle: Mask debate hits local restaurants and diners

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Posted at 6:01 AM, Jul 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-20 18:42:46-04

Restaurant re-openings across the Tampa Bay area has spurred a new debate over how to stay safe while dining out. But with mask mandates a requirement in some cities and counties, some restaurant owners are now embracing masks.

“All of the data that we’re learning and in working with AdventHealth is that masks are your number one safest way to prevent the spread of this disease,” said Jeff Gigante, who owns Hyde Park restaurant Forbici Modern Italian.

Gigante told ABC Action News Anchor Wendy Ryan he not only requires masks but also has strict safety procedures.

“We ask them to use hand sanitizer when they come in,” said Gigante. “We take their temperatures. We ask them that they have masks on and if they don’t have one, we provide it.”

In June, Gigante announced in a Facebook post that one of his own employees tested positive for coronavirus. He said he believes he had to be forthcoming in order to protect everyone.

“I’ve been doing this for a lot of years as you know in our community and I’ve always made our way by being transparent,” said Gigante. “And being open and honest with our customers as well as our employees.”

And if a restauranteur is not enforcing the CDC rules, Gigante said owners should be aware of the risks they’re taking.

“To jeopardize people’s health – whether it be their staff or their customers – right now for the short gain is not the way to be,” he said.

But Kelli Snow, who owns Snowshack in Palm Harbor and works at a local Chick-fil-A doing public relations, disagrees with a June ruling from Pinellas County commissioners, which made masks mandatory inside a business.

“They’re infringing on our rights and I know that probably sounds like a soapbox saying as an American, but that’s how I feel,” said Snow.

Snow said she thinks commissioners should strongly recommend masks instead of making it mandatory. She said she and her employees all abide by CDC safety guidelines – including wearing a mask but said she thinks the recommendations coming out about COVID-19 is confusing and constantly changing.

“There’s changes every day,” said Snow. “There's so many changes of what works and what doesn’t work.”

Masks work

But scientists and medical professionals all agree that masks work.

“We know they restrict infectious particles from coming out while we are breathing,” said Dr. David Wein, chief of emergency medicine at Tampa General Hospital. “There’s a number of studies that show that transmission or the amount of droplets that are spread are decreased by wearing a mask, so if we are spreading less droplets, we’re less infectious.”

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Dr. Wein said masks have also proven to lower infection rates during past pandemics, including in 2003 during SARS in China.

As Florida’s COVID-19 numbers began to spike in June, Gov. Ron DeSantis did not mandate masks but vowed to crack down on businesses not following safety guidelines, warning those who ignored the guidelines would receive a visit from the Halsey Beshears, head of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which inspects restaurants and bars. At a news conference, DeSantis even referred to Beshears as the “grim reaper” of business licenses.

“If you’re not willing to do that, you’re going to get a visit here from – he’ll be kind of the grim reaper in terms of business licenses because there’s not going to be any tolerance for it,” said DeSantis.

Crackdown results in bar closures

Beshears also promised swift action at the news conference, including license suspensions for rule-breakers.

“Those who are in flagrant violation, we have ABT officers that are going to be out from now on from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. checking on these bars and restaurants that are in violation of this,” said Beshears.

But just three days later, Beshears shut down all bars for on-premise alcohol consumption, writing in this order that noncompliance by bars throughout the state was suspected to be so widespread that enforcement was “impractical and insufficient at this time.”

Local officials have also been inspecting restaurants. St. Pete Police sent ABC Action News a list of restaurants cited for employees failing to wear masks. The penalty is a $100 fine plus $18 in court costs. Violators can fight the ticket, but if a judge finds them guilty of the violation, the fine could increase up to $500.

Across the bay in Tampa, Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Datz restaurant, said she’s been requiring masks since they re-opened but told ABC Action News enforcing the rule hasn’t been easy.

“When a customer enters the door, we ask them please to wear a mask,” said Perry. “And they’re not used to be asked to do that. Not all of them love it. Some of them don’t want to do it.”

Perry said the masks are also for the safety of her own staff.

“Sometimes a customer might be asymptomatic, and I don’t want my servers exposed to that either,” said Perry.

Perry said she spends more than $1,000 a week to buy masks for all her restaurants – a cost she said is worth the price of safety

“I will allow the servers to take off the masks when the scientists tell us it’s safe to do that and we have stopped the spread in COVID,” said Perry.

‘It is a CDC recommendation’

Danielle Egger, a former Florida health inspector who now consults with restaurants on food safety issues, including issues surrounding COVID-19 and the use of masks, said she believes all restaurant workers, including those interacting with customers, should be wearing masks.

“It is not a law. It is a CDC recommendation,” said Eggers. “However, it is a strong recommendation and the studies show that it helps in the reduction of pathogen spreading.”

Egger said the biggest mistake she sees when it comes to mask-wearing is leaving the nose exposed.

“Those respiratory droplets will still have access to our nostrils,” said Egger.

Egger said any restaurant not in agreement of wearing a face covering should reconsider.

“These are your customers,” said Egger. “These are paying customers and they count on you in normal circumstances to practice safety standards and hygiene standards and you are held to a higher standard because you’re serving them food and you do have a risk of getting somebody sick.”

And for diners who hate wearing a mask? Egger recommends sitting outside.

“There were cases investigated in China that did indicate that the respiratory droplets had been spread through the air conditioning, so the fresh air definitely helps,” said Egger.

As new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, the White House’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci has indicated that wearing a mask might be the only thing that saves states from going into lockdown mode again.

Gigante agrees.

“And those people who don’t want to implement the strict adherence to masks, I think are going to cause all of us a lot of pain,” said Gigante.