Some Gulfport businesses have enacted strict mask policies and even vaccine requirements for employees – and despite the executive order from Governor Ron DeSantis banning municipal mask mandates, it’s all completely legal.
Private businesses can enforce mask mandates as part of a uniform, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and they can also require employees to get COVID-19 vaccines, barring a disability or an employee’s religious exemptions. Because there are no government-ordered mask or vaccine mandates, however, businesses can also choose to forgo any type of CDC-recommended COVID safety guidelines.
Pia Goff, owner of Pia’s Trattoria in Gulfport, is taking full precautions. The restaurant began enforcing vaccination requirements for her staff on August 3.
The popular spot at 3054 Beach Blvd. S. also has a mask-on policy for both employees and customers.
Goff enacted the policy in response to rising COVID numbers in Pinellas, a surge fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.
“Out of 50 employees, one chose not to be vaccinated and one is still contemplating,” Goff said August 24. The employee who chose not to be vaccinated no longer works at the restaurant.
Guests must wear a face covering while standing up inside the building, but are welcome to take it off once they sit down or are in the outdoor seating area.
“I’d say 90% of our customers wear the mask with no problems, and the other 10% are very vocal about disagreeing with it,” Goff said. “That’s sad for our employees because people can get angry and they didn’t make the policy – I did.”
Pia’s also prints and trashes menus each day to avoid contamination.
Stella’s, a neighboring breakfast and brunch spot at 2914 Beach Blvd. S., enforces similar precautions.
According to owner Barbara Banno, she isn’t requiring vaccinations, but is enforcing mask wear inside for staff and recommends face covering outdoors for visitors and staff.
The majority of Stella’s seating is outdoors, however, making the mask policy difficult to enforce, says Banno.
“It was challenging at first during the summer,” Banno said. “It’s a long hot day out there, but my staff understands the importance of this issue.”
Online menus and ordering are also an option for those that want to forgo the potential germs. Some local restaurants, like PJ’s on St. Pete Beach, have switched to QR codes for contact-less menus.
“Since the beginning, COVID-19 has been a constant moving target that we’ve been faced with,” Banno said. “We have and will continue to follow CDC guidelines through this.”
Numbers Continue to Rise
COVID cases are still on the rise in Pinellas County, with 6,790 cases reported for the week of August 20 through the 26 – a positivity rate of 18% – according to the most recent weekly report available at press time from the Florida Department of Health, while 6,779 Pinellas residents received a vaccine in that time period.
According to the CDC, “The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in a restaurant or bar setting as interactions within 6 feet of others increase.” The CDC currently recommends masks in restaurants and bars “for employees and for customers as much as possible when not eating or drinking and when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”