Seaside Deli cashier Audrey Bazil rings up a purchase by Andrew Estevez as others wait at an appropriate distance. The deli refuses to admit people without masks and limits the number of customers in the store, near Briny Breezes. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
County masks up in renewed effort to contain virus
By Charles Elmore
Within days of summer’s formal start, hopes for a season of easing restrictions on daily life collided with a wave of troubling reports of COVID-19’s spread, spurring Palm Beach County to make masks mandatory for customers at businesses like Annie Blake’s restaurant in Delray Beach.
She hopes people understand, and maybe also accept an “air hug” instead of a traditional embrace.
“It goes against the nature of us being hospitable, but it’s the new normal,” said Blake, who co-owns Death or Glory on Northeast Sixth Avenue.
She knows people want to relax, get together and enjoy life a bit after months of strain. Yet the situation has forced the rethinking of even the simplest human impulses, such as blowing out candles on a birthday cake that guests are about to eat.
Now masks in public no longer can be left to personal choice, as far as county commissioners are concerned. Palm Beach County was slower to take that step than other big counties in South Florida, but then went on to announce it would mail masks to all households in the county of 1.5 million people.
“From a guest perspective, it will be interesting,” Blake said. “I guess we will have to do some mask policing if people don’t wear them. On the other hand, it’s a little easier if we can blame someone as bad cop.”
Employees were already wearing masks, she noted, and now patrons are required to do the same under county rules passed June 23.
County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth said he “hates” the idea of requiring people to wear masks. It goes against his grain, he said.
But Weinroth, whose district includes communities along the county’s southern coast, said he felt compelled to join fellow commissioners in a 7-0 vote to make masks compulsory.
“The numbers we saw this week were just out of this world,” he said.
Those numbers grew more challenging in the days after the vote, with Florida setting daily records of new cases including 9,557 by June 26. Four days later, the state reported more than 152,000 total cases.
In Palm Beach County, 18.2% of those tested were confirmed as positive for the virus on June 23, spiking above an average that has typically landed in single digits.
Palm Beach County had more than 14,000 cases reported by June 30, with 13% of those resulting in hospitalization and 4% in deaths, state records show.
The death rate, disproportionately affecting those 65 and older, has been falling as more people become infected. New infections are increasingly occurring among younger people, ages 25 to 34, who are statistically less likely to need hospitalization.
Still, county officials noted two 17-year-olds have died in Florida and many younger people have experienced painful symptoms. And in the larger picture, each new case increases the risk of spreading the virus to others of varying ages and health conditions, and it can take weeks or months to know how many cases of initial infection might end in hospitalization or death.
“This is our wake-up call, folks,” Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner said June 26.
Jess Lee and Bridgette Smith of Delray Beach talk with hosts Terraine Dowles and Alec Leonardo at Tin Roof in Delray Beach prior to entering the food, drink and music establishment. Tin Roof requires all patrons to wear masks upon entry, exit and while moving around the premises. Customers are not required to wear masks while sitting at tables. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Local officials voice support
The county’s mask order introduced a new layer of governmental authority to a range of policies that businesses, organizations and municipalities already had adopted.
Catholic churches in the Diocese of Palm Beach, for example, announced in a May 11 letter from Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito that “it is highly recommended that face masks be utilized while in church except for the reception of Holy Communion.”
The return of Sunday and daily Mass was accompanied by precautions, including social distancing of 6 feet and the “use of every other pew.”
Under the county order, exceptions exist for people with medical conditions such as asthma, those eating and drinking, children aged 2 or younger, those exercising while social distancing, and people “for whom a facial covering conflicts with their religious beliefs or practices.”
The diocese “will follow the directives of the county commissioners and the CDC,” said Jennifer Trefelner, director of communications.
Before the county move, Ocean Ridge reopened its town meetings to the general public, with restrictions.
“Chairs are spaced out by 6 feet for proper social distancing and masks must be worn in Town Hall,” said Town Manager Tracey Stevens. “No-touch hand sanitizer stations have been installed. Teleconference is still available for those that wish to attend from home.”
Mayor Scott Singer in Boca Raton said he supported the county’s mask policy “instead of potentially confusing measures to be enacted city by city.”
Law enforcement officers are expected to issue warnings and correct people first, but fines start at $25 for individuals, $50 for a second offense and $100 after a third, under rules approved by county officials June 29. Businesses face fines starting at $250, and up to $500 after repeat offenses.
“Of course, some individuals cannot wear a mask because of health concerns, and it is our hope that neighbors continue to act with kindness and respect,” Singer said in an email to constituents. “If you see someone not wearing a mask, there’s no need to be confrontational.”
He asked residents not to call 911 to report someone not wearing a mask, saying that should be reserved for emergencies.
Instead, concerns about compliance can be relayed to email@example.com or 561-242-6843, where county staff will track such matters, he said.
It all leaves businesses coping with a new form of hospitality that might not feel entirely comfortable to either customers or staff. But the alternative could mean a higher risk that someone ends up in a hospital.
“Some people say, ‘Hey, take off your mask and give us a hug,’” Blake said in Delray Beach. “I hope they are not offended. I would hope it would make us all hyper-aware.”