When Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke at the December 3 press conference that “being able to go into a restaurant and stand around and have a conversation the way we used to do it is fun [but] now we need to do it differently,” at least one deputy must not have gotten the memo.
As the Gabber owners delivered the Gabber Newspaper along St. Pete Beach early December 10, they saw a deputy inside Vito and Michael’s. The deputy stood at the front counter, not wearing a face covering, for at least five minutes. In that time, he spoke to another man (also standing at the counter, with no face covering) and held the door as two people with no face covering left the restaurant.
The woman working behind the counter wore a mask, as did the healthcare worker who walked past the unmasked deputy to get a carry out order.
The Gabber emailed photos of the unmasked deputy to the Sheriff’s Office and asked them how this incident occurred, how it supports Gualtieri’s December 3 message, and whether the deputy would be disciplined.
Their one-sentence response gave no indication that Gualtieri intended to discipline him.
“Like everyone, deputies need to make the best effort possible to follow the local ordinance and all our personnel are reminded to do so,” Deputy Jessica Mackesy, with the Sheriff’s public information office, said via email.
Al Johnson, St. Pete Beach Mayor, responded more strongly to the photos.
“That’s totally the wrong message,” Johnson said. “We require masks inside, period, end of subject.”
St. Pete Beach dissolved its police department in 2012 and now contracts with PCSO for services. Johnson told the Gabber he would pursue the matter with the city manager and Sheriff Gualtieri.
South Pinellas cities all handle the mask ordinance differently. Both the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg stressed to the Gabber that they expect their officers to follow the county’s mask mandate, although how they treat unmasked individuals differs.
In a June 24 memo to all sworn officers, Gulfport Chief of Police Rob Vincent reminded officers that mask ordinance violations carry a $100 fine, with subsequent violations escalating first to $250, then $500.
Also in that memo – which he reiterated in a phone call with the Gabber – Vincent outlined the preferred course of action: ask businesses to create a mask policy and, if a patron refuses to comply, call the police to trespass the un-masked customer.
The county mask ordinance, as written, Vincent told the Gabber, has too many loopholes for effective enforcement. He used the example of people seated at a table, saying the burden of proof that groups are or are not in the same family falls with the police, not private citizens.
Vincent also told the Gabber that, on a December 3 5 p.m. conference call, every law enforcement agency in Pinellas agreed it would not issue tickets for mask violations. Read this story online to access the email Sheriff Gualtieri sent to Pinellas police chiefs. Governor DeSantis’s mandate that individuals not get tickets motivated the call, at least in part.
“Following discussion of several factors, including the many loopholes in the ordinance language, as well as the governor’s executive order, we agreed that it would be inappropriate for law enforcement to issue citations for violation of the county ordinance,” Vincent said of the conference call.
Despite that call, St. Petersburg has cited more than 200 businesses for mask violations – although many of those citations come via the codes department, according to Ben Kirby, the city’s communications director.
“We have a mayor’s order as well as a county order,” Yolanda Fernandez, the St. Petersburg Police Department’s public information officer, said. “We will issue a citation if we see a violation. However, we haven’t in a while because code enforcement has taken the lead on this. They are proactively checking businesses.”
Although SPPD will cite businesses, Fernandez explained, they allow complaints to drive police enforcement.
“When someone calls [and complains] we send someone out,” she said. “We have to see it.”
While the city’s codes compliance assistance and the fire departments issue the bulk of citations, Fernandez said all three departments will ticket businesses.
PCSO, however, remains steadfast in their resistance to issuing citations. Gualtieri has said he would not enforce the county’s mask ordinance, saying he wouldn’t “play mask police.”
Although the Pinellas County Commission passed the mask ordinance, Gualtieri doesn’t answer to them. In cities like Gulfport and St. Petersburg, management hires and fires the police chief with guidance from the elected council and mayor, however voters elect the sheriff.
Text below of email from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to Pinellas law enforcement agencies dated December 2, 2020 titled “COVID Call for Thursday.”
There is concern about non-compliance with the county COVID ordinance, especially by bars and restaurants, regarding face coverings by employees, people standing at bars and other distancing requirements. The number of daily positives and the percent positivity has increased, and while hospital capacity is stable there is concern about capacity in the near future.
During the weekend of November 11-13 I had undercover deputies do about 3,000 compliance checks of bars and restaurants throughout Pinellas County, including in every city. The purpose was to determine if the non-compliance issues being raised by County Commissioners and others were correct or if the claims were anecdotal. We found that 41% of bars and 8% of restaurants throughout the county were non-complaint.
There is a some “push” toward enforcement and to issue ordinance violations. I am not inclined to go that route for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Governor DeSantis’ order that fines are suspended as to individuals. I also don’t believe issuing ordinance violations to businesses (or individuals) is prudent.
Therefore, we are going to engage in a renewed education and compliance campaign in an effort to gain better adherence to the ordinance. Tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. I, along with the county administrator, chair of the BCC, and some mayors are holding a press conference to call for better compliance and announce our renewed effort. We will release results of the compliance checks over the 3 day period in November and discuss the concerning positivity trends.
Part of the renewed effort will be the distribution of new signs to place in the windows of every bar and restaurant in the county. The signs are being printed and should be available tomorrow or Friday. I would like your help in placing these signs in the windows in your cities. I am going to send a calendar invite for a call for tomorrow at 5:00 p.m., which will be after the press conference, to discuss sign distribution and how we can all work together in this effort. Please try to be on the call and if you cannot participate please have a representative on the call. Thank you.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office
10750 Ulmerton Road
P.O. Drawer 2500
Largo, Florida 33779