It was a relief for many. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed that the fully vaccinated could take off their masks.
At about the same time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order expressly banning local fines on the unmasked and vowed to resist any local, state or federal mask mandates. The order did not affect private business policies, however.
By early summer, most local restaurant and other workers were doffing the masks they’d worn for more than a year. And customers became more comfortable with that.
Staff from front to back of house breathed deep sighs of relief and showed their smiles again.
For some, the respite wouldn’t last.
With COVID-19 and its highly contagious delta variant surging across the country, and new studies showing that even the fully vaccinated can become infected and transmit the virus, the CDC changed its recommendations.
“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing. “In rare occasions some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. ... This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”
The update recommends that even the fully vaccinated mask up again indoors, in public, in areas of substantial or high virus transmission — which means most of the country, including Florida.
But without universal state or federal masking mandates, or even public consensus, interpretations vary.
Starting July 30, Disney World in Orlando required guests to mask up again indoors.
In most other cases, however, customers are not required to wear a mask.
Maskless since mid-May, all Publix Supermarkets associates were told to mask up as of Aug. 2, as were Walmart and Target employees. Jacksonville-based Southeastern Grocers, which owns Winn-Dixie, said only it is encouraging, not requiring, customers to wear a mask. Meanwhile, Walgreen’s had never gone maskless.
Policies at local restaurants differ as well — from complete freedom of choice to masks for vaccinated employees or masks for all employees.
Among chains, Carrabba’s and Panera Bread reinstated masks in early August, while LongHorn remained mask-free. McDonald’s followed the latest CDC recommendations, requiring masks for everyone, including customers, in areas with substantial or high transmission rates.
Some local restaurants that are keeping a maskless status quo chose not to be mentioned because they’re unsure how customers would react.
Among those without a masking requirement at this time are Cape Haze Tavern, Grill at 1951, Nino’s Bakery & Restaurant, Riviera Bar & Grill, and RJ’s New England Seafood.
Punta Gorda’s Celtic Ray continues to abide by its original policy — giving its staff a choice of wearing or not wearing a mask.
Matt Nemec at the Wyvern Hotel’s Perch 360 and 88 Keys Florida agreed.
“As always, we let our employees make their own decision until otherwise directed,” Nemec said.
Visani Italian Steakhouse & Comedy Theater and The Crepe Chef also leave mask choice up to its staff.
Max Padrón at Brothers Fish House Restaurant, in Port Charlotte, leaves the masking decision to his employees and reports that customers who have been vaccinated seem more comfortable dining out. He remains uncertain what will happen in the future, though.
George Dubbaneh at North Port’s Dubz BBQ, on the other hand, reinstated masks, “so that customers would feel more comfortable with all these COVID cases rising.”
According to Sandy Catalano, co-owner of Isabella’s Bistro in Englewood, staff has been wearing masks since last March.
“And will continue to wear them,” Catalano said.
Health-conscious Chef Jeanie Roland wouldn’t reopen Punta Gorda’s Perfect Caper until all employees had been vaccinated.
“We still have some distancing in place and are cleaning the whole place in 15-minute intervals, as we were during the beginning,” she said.
It has had a “strict mask policy” since reopening, Roland said.
“We are an indoor space — and serve such a large variety of people (including) those with underlying health conditions. We feel it is everyone’s right to feel safe while dining, so everyone is masked when moving about the dining space ...The chefs on the hot line do not wear masks while working there, but do as they move about the dining space.”
Laurie Farlow at Englewood’s Farlow’s on the Water said she is also vigilant about protecting customers and staff.
“My policy is that if you’re fully vaccinated, you may remove your mask. I gave those people a bracelet that they have the option to wear,” Farlow said. “They don’t have to wear it, though, because they don’t have to disclose that information. And I have a few vaccinated people who are still wearing masks.”
When the policy first started, only three employees were able to take off their mask — now it’s about one-third, she said. She thinks it was a “positive step toward encouraging vaccination.”
“It’s a weird world to navigate,” Farlow said. “Right now, I’m sticking with where I am and have not required everyone back in masks. But we’re paying attention to what’s going on.”