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Barbs and praise for Tampa Bay stores that still require masks

Marco B Divaio

ST. PETERSBURG — The sign on the door at Sans Market is hard to miss: “Masks still required.”

One couple appeared to do so on a recent Saturday at the downtown store on Central Avenue. An employee quickly told them they needed to cover up and offered free disposable masks. Instead, the couple left.

Minutes later, they returned with a heavily marked up and highlighted printout of an executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that they said proved they couldn’t be forced to wear masks.

“We’ve had some situations that have been a little bit uncomfortable,” said store co-owner Eniko Olah. “Some people are just so rude back.”

It’s been more than a month since the governor suspended coronavirus restrictions statewide, including mask mandates. Since then, most bars, shops and restaurants have adopted the Centers for Disease Control guidelines that fully vaccinated people no longer need masks in most settings. Local schools are following suit, making face coverings optional when students return after summer break.

But some Tampa Bay stores are continuing to require masks. That stance has led to heated exchanges, frustrated patrons and even vows to never shop there again.

Related: DeSantis signs bill banning vaccine ‘passports,’ suspends local pandemic restrictions

After DeSantis’ May 3 order, Olah of Sans Market decided it was premature to relax mask rules in the store space she shares with Lida’s Jungle, which sells indoor and tropical plants.

The owners of the businesses agreed they wanted to protect employees and customers.

At the time, some of Olah’s younger workers hadn’t been able to get fully vaccinated. She also wanted to wait for Pinellas County to reach the 70 percent vaccination rate that most experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity.

But the county’s vaccination rate is only at 55 percent. Meanwhile, shoppers have become increasingly accustomed to life without face coverings.

That’s made for difficult moments at Sans Market. Some customers walk away when they see the mask sign, Olah said. There has been “huffing and puffing,” she said, and people talking about their rights.

The store has Florida law on its side. The governor’s executive order does not prohibit businesses from requiring masks or refusing service to those who don’t wear them — just as they could for those shopping with no shoes and no shirt.

Regulars support the stance taken by the zero-waste lifestyle store, which sells items such as bamboo toothbrushes, organic bug-repellent and individual toilet paper rolls and caters to those opposed to the planet’s growing pile of disposable plastic. But Olah acknowledges that it may soon be time to follow the lead of other stores.

“I do feel like we’re losing business because we’re still requiring masks, and that’s a hard pill to swallow,” she said. “But I do think that’s what our loyal customers want.”

Eniko Olah, owner of Sans Market, opens the door for customer, Ambar Candanedo, of Miami, while her daughter is waiting outside without a mask.
Eniko Olah, owner of Sans Market, opens the door for customer, Ambar Candanedo, of Miami, while her daughter is waiting outside without a mask. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

Masks are mandatory at swah-reh, a dessert bar in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District where server Julia Resch started working one month ago. The policy has hit sales, she said, and prompted plenty of snark.

When an unmasked customer walked in on a recent evening, he offered her $5 if she would waive the rules for him. She declined.

“He would rather lose $5 than put a bit of cloth over his face,” she said.

Other customers she asked to wear a mask have taken delight in telling her she just lost their business or that the bar needs to catch up with other stores.

“I don’t know why people get mad over cupcakes,” she said. “It blows my mind.”

Related: Tampa Bay restaurants and bars react to new CDC mask guidance

Taylor Dretke and his wife, Brittany Dretke, donned masks as they ordered coffee and cupcakes Friday. The Oregon couple, visiting St. Petersburg for a few days, said the mask mandates also protect children and others who have not had the chance to be vaccinated.

“People who oppose masks won’t wear one whether they’re vaccinated or not,” Taylor Dretke said.

Customers of Tombolo Books on First Avenue S have largely been supportive of its mask mandate, said co-owner Alsace Walentine.

She said she frequently checks the city’s coronavirus positivity and vaccination rates so they have up-to-date data on which to base decisions. The store provides free masks to customers who don’t have one. Like Sans Market, Tombolo will likely drop the mandate soon, Walentine said.

Meredith Mechanik, right, of Tampa, browses through books at Tombolo Books, a bookstore at downtown St. Petersburg, and one of the few stores that still mandates masks for all customers.
Meredith Mechanik, right, of Tampa, browses through books at Tombolo Books, a bookstore at downtown St. Petersburg, and one of the few stores that still mandates masks for all customers. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

She said there have been a handful of frustrated people who expect everything to be open. But few have been mad enough to leave. Most mask up and shop.

Some customers are playing it safe, too, Walentine said. That’s why Tombolo offers curbside pickup.

“We still have a lot of customers who say they’re not going out a whole lot,” Walentine said. “(They) are still giving us feedback that they appreciate so much that we are going out of our way to make it a safe environment.”

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