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Masks Becoming Optional At Some Alachua, Marion Businesses

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Carissa Costello
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WUFT News
Paula King, owner of Agapanthus, a gift and accessory shop with locations in both Ocala and Gainesville, said that mandates made things easier, but now she is looking to other businesses for guidance.

With mask-wearing mandates gone, businesses are deciding whether to ditch the requirement in their facilities.

At first, enforcing customers to wear masks didn’t result in fights. It wasn’t until around the election that things took a nasty turn. The 16-year-olds manning the Marion Theatre box office faced large, angry crowds reacting to their requests.

For Opus Coffee owner Tim Larson, the hardest part of the whole pandemic was the confrontation between customers that lacked empathy throughout it all, he said.

“It was actually an insight into humanity,” Larson said. “Even if a customer does not want to wear a mask when they enter the place, like, it’s not really our job to police it, but we were sort of forced to. I’m just glad it’s all over.”

Finally, both local business owners and their vaccinated patrons can breathe a heavy, maskless sigh of relief.

With mask-wearing mandates gone, Alachua and Marion County businesses are deciding whether to ditch the requirement in their facilities.

Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all mask mandates in the state in wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement in May. Vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors, with a few exceptions.

Masks are strongly recommended but not mandated in Marion and Alachua counties after the emergency mask mandate ordinances expired.

Paula King, owner of Agapanthus, a gift and accessory shop with locations in both Ocala and Gainesville, said that mandates made things easier, but now she is looking to other businesses for guidance.

“One of the common ways seems to be to just continue to have your team wear masks, but not require it of your customers,” she said. “And that is where we are right now.”

King’s 12 employees are mostly vaccinated, but she would rather not have patrons guessing.

Larson said he has taken down mask signs. Most of his 78 employees are vaccinated and are feeling safe.

“A lot of the patrons don’t wear masks already anyways,” said Larson.

Every person at Opus Coffee at the innovation location approached the bar with masks but sipped their coffee without them.

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Carissa Costello
Jason Chen, 21, and Caitlyn Jewett, 19, are vaccinated UF students and feel comfortable studying maskless while studying at Opus Coffee in Innovation on May 28.

Jason Chen, 21, and Caitlyn Jewett, 19, sat maskless at back corner table. Both UF students, Jewett is a server at Splitz Bowling Alley and Chen works at pediatric clinic.

Chen is still wearing his mask everywhere until heard immunity is reached.

“Personally, I think businesses should have their employees wear masks. It’s presumptuous for the CDC to do this right now. There is a reason our generation doesn’t have smallpox. It’s because herd immunity is real and works,” he said.

“Whether you are vaccinated or not, wearing a mask is beneficial. I don’t have a problem with it,” said Jewett.

Larson set a date of June 15 to make masks optional for employees so the change was not too sudden.

“I have had meetings with employees to see when they would like to stop wearing masks, he said. “It seems like for now they would still like to wear masks for another few weeks.”

Matt Wardell, CEO of Reilly Arts Center in Ocala, said it is now up to the public to assume responsibility by getting vaccinated or wearing masks when necessary.

Wardell stopped enforcing a mask mandate, but some employees and guests are still wearing them. He said most of his 18-member staff are vaccinated.

The Arts Center had limited concerts and capacity for their Ocala Symphony Orchestra. The Marion Theatre in downtown Ocala is still running at 50% capacity and will not be running at full capacity for some time, Wardell said.

Private businesses can still require patrons to wear masks, according to law. Florida entered phase three of reopening, giving businesses the ability to operate at full capacity with limited social distancing.

Coronavirus cases are on the decline and vaccination rates have increased across the Sunshine State. Even so, Marion and Alachua Counties’ positivity rate remains high at 6%. The number of hospitalized patients declined, and number of deaths have remained stagnant.

Before DeSantis lifted the mandates, businesses were getting frustrated with the lack of mask enforcement that left them grappling with what to do.

For Larson, “if there was a disaster, or a pandemic that was 10 times worse, I don’t know how I feel how our country would survive. Like it seems like a mild pandemic. A lot of people still couldn’t wear it (masks) or be nice to each other,” he said.