Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen it happen — or done it ourselves. We stride toward a business with purpose and then freeze just outside the door. We’ve forgotten our mask. We start patting our pockets, pawing through our purse or do an about-face and head back to the car. 

Now, in May, we are still approaching the front doors of local businesses with caution. To mask or not?

At King Seafood retail and restaurant market in Marathon, the signs are still up about wearing a mask or social distancing. But inside, it comes down to personal choice. 

“I encourage the retail employees to wear masks, because it keeps them more safe,” said owner Judith Silva. “But as far as customers, it’s up to them to decide what to do.”

In fact, just as she says this, two customers who are clearly together approach the door. One is wearing a mask, one isn’t. 

Mask-wearing mandates and other local government COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and individuals in Florida are no longer in effect, per a pair of executive orders signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 3. 

And on the morning of May 5, Monroe County followed suit. At a special meeting, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously repealed a local ordinance that required everyone to wear a mask upon entry into a restaurant or business. It was set for a June 1 sunset, but DeSantis’ orders immediately ended that local restriction. 

The Key West city attorney told the city’s lawmakers at their May 4 meeting they had to let their mask mandate expire on May 5, due to the governor’s order. 

Business owners can still require masks when patrons enter their establishments, but DeSantis’ orders override any approved decision-making and oversight by city and county governments over COVID measures that infringe on rights or liberties. 

Outside on Duval Street, Key West’s main tourism thoroughfare, masks look to have become a thing of the past for tourists, although many businesses, including the iconic Sloppy Joe’s bar and Half Shell Raw Bar at Key West’s Historic Seaport, are still strictly requiring the face coverings.

“You can’t come in without a mask,” a host at Sloppy Joe’s told two women on Tuesday afternoon who were wanting to look inside for their friends. “As long as you keep your masks on, you can come in and look for them.”

The bar and restaurant has limited entry to one door and installed signs requiring masks all over the property. 

Down the street, at It’Sugar candy store, large pink signs tell patrons that masks are still required, and at the Half Shell Raw Bar, COVID concerns are still very much at the forefront for the staff and patrons. 

Other bars and restaurants have celebrated the lifting of the restrictions and are happy to welcome patrons with a visible smile. 

“It’s really become a personal choice for people, which I think is a good thing,” said one downtown bartender,who asked not to be identified due to the polarizing nature of the mask discussion. “I’m fully vaccinated, so I certainly don’t miss the masks. They were hot and it was tough to hear people’s drink orders. But I absolutely understand and agree with the reasoning behind it. I’m just hoping we can soon put all of this negativity and division behind us.”

Food for Thought co-owner Blair Shiver said she was happy about the mask mandate at the height of the pandemic, and equally happy to be able to put them away now. 

“We’re thankful for the mandate that required masks and helped keep infection rates relatively low in a vulnerable community like the Keys,” Shiver said. “We’re also thankful to be able to greet our customers with a welcoming smile again while we continue to ensure cleanliness.” 

At C & C Wood Fire Eats in Key Largo, owner Mike Atwell said they’re loving the mask mandate’s ending. 

“People can see faces and smiles again. It’s a big deal,” he said.  

Mom and pop businesses in the Keys are more likely to have dropped mask requirements. Big chains — Home Depot, Walgreens and Publix — are still requiring the face coverings. 

“Throughout this pandemic, we’ve implemented many changes in our stores to safeguard the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” said Maria Brous, director of communications for Publix. “At this time, no changes are being made to our mask policy.”

Walgreens also requires masks. But according to a spokesperson, stores will not stop customers without a mask from shopping. 

“Walgreens management may gently remind customers who are shopping without masks about the requirement, but out of concern for our employees’ safety, we do not stop these customers from shopping.”

It is, indeed, a volatile subject for some. 

Mike Forster, county commissioner and owner of Mangrove Mike’s in Islamorada, said the governor’s orders were a preemption without the support of the medical community. While he’s personally ready to take off the mask, he’s asking what happened to getting 70% of the population vaccinated before lifting restrictions. 

“It is what it is,” he said. “I still don’t like … Tallahassee taking away home rule.”

A Facebook group created following DeSantis’ orders is keeping track of businesses and restaurants that are making masks optional. Forming on May 4, roughly 300 members have joined the “Free To Breathe The Florida Keys” page to see what restaurants and businesses are “welcoming and friendly to non-mask-wearing patrons.”

The Marathon Chamber of Commerce is also taking the middle road at its visitors center. 

“We will keep our ‘masks required to enter’ signs up, but if a patron arrives without a mask on we will offer them a free mask, and if they still refuse will not ask them to leave,” said Chamber CEO Daniel Samess. “My staff will be wearing masks when around and/or interacting with patrons, and we will keep our sneeze/protective guards up and in place as well as our social distancing signage. I have discussed the policy with staff, and I made it clear my number one priority is their safety and comfort.”

Islamorada Chamber of Commerce is keeping its mask-wearing in place when visitors enter. Those who don’t have a facial covering will be provided one. Judy Hull, chamber executive director, said it’s a “mixed-bag” when looking at businesses in the village either requiring masks or making it a personal choice. 

Elizabeth Moscynski, Key Largo Chamber of Commerce president, said many businesses are still requiring facial coverings. At the chamber, however, she said the message is now “masks recommended.”

“Our staff wears masks if we cannot social distance and, most importantly, when visitors enter the building,” she said. “For the most part, our visitors enter wearing masks.”

At Fairfield Inn & Suites, masks are required inside the building, but not outside around the pool. 

“We must follow the policies of Marriott International,” said general manager Michael Weber. 

At the Monroe County school board meeting on May 11, board members acknowledged the “hot button” issue of masking inside the schools. 

Superintendent Theresa Axford said, “We’re going to keep the mask policy in place until the close of the school year.” But then the board and Bob Eadie, administrator and health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, had a long discussion about whether children should mask up during the summer school sessions. 

Eadie said, “Our numbers have been so low as far as new cases and vaccinations go up and up.” Therefore, he supported parents making their own choice as to whether children wear masks during the summer sessions. However, he said, it’s recommended that masks be worn per Florida Department of Health guidelines.

In the end, the five members of the board unanimously voted in support of the following motion: “The Monroe County School Board is recommending that the summer sessions be ‘masks optional’ subject to further direction from the Monroe County Health Department.”

Sara Matthis
Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.