Business owners encourage kindness as mask-related aggression increases

With Florida's private businesses now having the choice of whether to ask patrons to wear masks, a Bay Area small business owner said she had to put out a special sign to ask customers to treat employees with respect when they enforce the store’s policies.

Customers can get scoops of loose leaf tea, drinks, and sweets at TeBella Tea Company, but the owner said she hopes customers walk in with one basic thing: kindness.

"I’ve actually fielded quite a few phone calls in the last couple of days from employees that are fearful over the way they’ve been spoken to. They’ve been called names. They’ve been threatened, and they’re pretty upset about it. They don’t deserve that," said Abigail StClair, the owner of TeBella Tea Company.

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With several locations around Tampa Bay, StClair said people became more aggressive toward employees after Governor Ron DeSantis removed pandemic-related restrictions, including mask mandates, Monday.

That left private businesses to enforce their own COVID-19 rules instead of local government.

"If they feel that those protocols that are recommended are appropriate whether it’s inside or outside, they have the right on their property to set those rules," Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said during a commission meeting this week.

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Wednesday, a new sign went up outside TeBella, saying "masks required" along with a message describing what employees are going through. StClair said that sign went up after one employee quit during a shift, and that was a first in her 10 years of business.

"They came in and started name calling her and verbally assaulting her, and she had just had enough. She told me after four years she was done. Couldn’t even come back another day," said StClair. "It was just happening too many times, and honestly, I don’t blame her. It’s just not worth it."

Pandemic-related staff shortages make losing a good worker that much harder. So small business owners said they hope the public has some empathy and kindness when they come in.

"All we’re asking is that you do your part to help keep them safe. And if you could treat them with respect and be polite, that’s going to go a long way toward making their day that much easier. All we’re asking for is kindness," said StClair.

The owner says her business is not the only one going through this.  

"People are starting to show a lot of antipathy toward some of our policies. But we see both sides. We see people that are really grateful that we’re still so COVID-cautious, and we see others that are really annoyed that we still have a mask mandate in place," she said.

The state order still allows businesses to enforce their own health and safety policies related to the coronavirus.