Pinellas sheriff deploying deputies to remind businesses to follow mask requirement, social distancing

The sheriff of Pinellas County warned business owners to comply with the current COVID-19 ordinance in the county -- or risk paying up. On Friday, his agency plans to remind business owners to comply with the mask requirement and social distancing guidelines.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday that the sheriff's office has seen businesses behaving in pre-pandemic terms, especially among bars and restaurants. It's an issue, he said, as those businesses tend to be places where people spend more time indoors, gathered together, and often not wearing face coverings.

If fact, he said of the thousands of businesses they observed in a given weekend, nearly 40% of bars were in violation of the county ordinance -- whether that's allowing people to sit too close together, congregate at the bar, employees not wearing masks, or even having dance floors open.

"We can’t keep going down this path. I don’t want to get back to where we were in June where we saw 15-16% positivity, where the healthcare system is overloaded and we’re really trying to be preemptive and proactive," the sheriff said, "and I’ll say it for the 10th time: We’re asking people for help. So, please help us. Don’t put us in the situation where we have to consider additional action."

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Gualtieri said some residents might have the misconception that an executive order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis did away with social distancing and mask rule. However, the sheriff pointed out that's not the case. The order said local governments cannot punish individuals for violations, but that doesn't prevent the businesses from facing fines, code violations, or even criminal charges for the owners. 

The sheriff added he hopes it doesn't reach that point of action. 

On Friday, law enforcement officers across the county will be dropping in on every business to give out signs and help remind owners and employees of the rules.