Patti and Jack Robertson walked into a Cedar Key bag shop for some last-minute browsing, at the end of their long-planned vacation last month, before the three-hour drive home to Venice.
No strangers to the small town of 773, the retirees were shocked when a store employee put a mask on as they walked in. She didn’t have to wear one on their account, they said. Indeed, the Robertsons didn’t think anyone should have to wear a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Their dismay led the couple to send the Cedar Key City Commission a letter urging against allowing “the masked army to take Cedar Key hostage.” In their two-page handwritten letter, dated Feb. 4, they also warned they may never return otherwise.
“It just is disgusting to us to see people thinking that they are entitled to tell you what you need to be doing, or businesses what they need to be doing,” Patti Robertson, 70, told WUFT News in a telephone interview from Venice. “We need to have the ability to make a choice in our life.”
Robertson also said she and her husband consider masks a needless form of censorship.
“Take off that stupid mask that’s not doing you any good and live your life,” she said.
Mask mandates remain a hotly debated topic, with protests against the protective measure ranging from legal to physical across Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recently urged people to add double-masking to combat new COVID-19 variants.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has said counties can issue mask advisories, but no fines or violations may be levied against anyone who ignores them. Cedar Key is in Levy County, which does not have such an advisory. The city was closed to outsiders for six weeks last spring, but after reopening in May it chose to not require masks, Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin said.
“We strongly recommend it, but it’s not mandated,” Sandlin said.
For some Cedar Key businesses, the choice – mask or no mask – hasn’t been easy. At the Island Hotel and Restaurant on Second Street, Andy and Stanley Bair have their employees do temperature checks before each shift but don’t mandate masks or social distancing.
“We’re not making a political statement about it,” said Andy Bair, 69. “If you’re not mingling, you don’t really need to be having a mask on.”
Bair said he wears a mask where it’s enforced, but believes a mask mandate would hurt the local service industry. The hotel outperformed its 2019 earnings once the city reopened, he said.
“There’s this perception that because we’re outside and sea breeze all the time, we’re less susceptible,” Bair said.
Drummond Community Bank, Cedar Key’s only bank, is one of the businesses that do require masks. The manager, Heath Davis, who is also the city’s mayor, said the bank’s lobby size is too small to enforce social distancing. And, he said, it was the polite thing to do.
“We want to take every precaution possible,” Davis said.
But the mayor stopped short of wanting a citywide mask mandate, saying that businesses that follow all other CDC guidelines – aside from masks – were as safe as those that required them.
What about the Robertsons’ concerns?
“I think it’s noticed that these folks are from out of town,” Davis said. “They probably wouldn’t want to write a letter like that if they lived here. Most people in Cedar Key kind of get it.”
Cedar Key had 10 active COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday evening, according to Levy County’s COVID-19 dashboard. Cedar Key residents wanting to be tested for COVID-19 or receive a vaccine must travel 33 miles to Bronson, however, Cedar Key offers testing at the local library for employees of businesses in the city, Davis and Sandlin said.
Davis said the city typically receives letters praising its handling of the pandemic. Still, the city commission discussed the Robertsons’ complaint during its monthly meeting Tuesday night.
After offering an update on the city’s COVID-19 status, the mayor gave the letter a 30-second acknowledgment before the commission moved onto other municipal business.
Reached at her home after the meeting, Patti Robertson told WUFT that she was happy the city didn’t double down on mask wearing. The Robertsons plan to return to Cedar Key, she said.
Correction appended: A previous version of this story misstated Cedar Key’s population.