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Collier mask order spawns complaints against businesses accused of not enforcing rules

Patrick Riley
Naples Daily News

Three weeks ago, Collier County commissioners in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus passed a mask order that requires workers and patrons in many businesses to wear facial coverings.

Since then, residents have lodged about 60 complaints against businesses — from gyms to restaurants and grocery stores — they say weren't properly enforcing those rules, according to a county code enforcement tally from Tuesday.

Previously:Collier commissioners pass masks mandate to curb spread of coronavirus

The measure requires owners, managers, employees, customers or patrons of a business in unincorporated Collier to wear a face covering while in that business.

There are exceptions for some businesses or certain situations, like when a patron eats or drinks. The rules expire at midnight Sept. 3 unless commissioners decide the order needs to be extended.

Enforcement of the order falls to the county’s code enforcement when it receives complaints about a business and is compliance-driven, officials have said. Fines can be up to $500 for a violation, per the order, but they would likely slowly ramp up for repeat noncompliance.

Previously:Alfie Oakes files federal lawsuit against Collier County over mask order

So far, residents have submitted complaints to county code enforcement against a range of businesses, but the most frequent offenders, according to the database, have been two businesses owned by Alfie Oakes, who recently sued the county over the order and has publicly said he would not enforce it.

"We will not back down," Oakes said at an event at Seed to Table late last month.

Alfie Oakes speaks during a gathering in opposition to the mask mandate passed by the Collier County Commissioners on Tuesday, at Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market on Saturday, July 25, 2020. Oakes announced that he and his legal team will be filing multiple lawsuits against Collier County and against the three individual commissioners that voted for the mandate.

Between Seed to Table, a North Naples grocery store and eatery, and Oakes Farms Market, just east of Naples, county code enforcement has fielded seven complaints, the database shows. 

Voicemails left Wednesday at two phone numbers linked to Oakes in public records were not immediately returned. An email to Dan St. Martin, who is listed as the store manager for Oakes Farms Market on its website, seeking comment was not returned before deadline.

Past coverage:Oakes Farms Seed to Table owner says he's following governor's order amid COVID-19

One complaint against Oakes Farms from July 22, one day after the order went into effect, details in the notes portion that the caller works there and "is uncomfortable that the management is not enforcing the mask ordinance."

Another note attached to an Oakes Farms complaint from July 31 states that the caller saw employees without masks "singing happy birthday."

Women on opposite sides of a protest have a discussion outside of Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market on Saturday, June 13, 2020. The protest was sparked by an incendiary Facebook post about COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement by Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market owner Alfie Oakes, and was met by a counter protest organized by Oakes.

The most recent one from Aug. 6 states that no one was wearing a mask except for the cashiers.

The first complaint against Seed to Table came on July 21, the day the order went into effect. 

"Today, commissioners passed an ordinance requiring masks to be worn inside public spaces and businesses," the notes portion for the complaint states. "A party will be held this evening at 6 pm. The owner has posted publicly that his store will not comply with this ordinance effective today. Please attend this gathering and give notice."

By the way:Naples City Council does not opt into Collier County mask mandate

A second complaint against Seed to Table came a week later. The complaint notes that no staff is wearing masks and that some customers are but "many are not."

The latest complaint against Seed to Table was recorded Aug. 5, according to the database. 

A sign detailing Seed to Table's mask exception guidelines hangs outside the entrance to the store during a gathering in opposition to the mask mandate passed by the Collier County Commissioners on Tuesday, at Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market on Saturday, July 25, 2020. Collier County Commissioners who voted against the mandate are shown with Uncle Sam hats, while those that voted for the mandate are depicted above the word socialist.

As of Tuesday, county code enforcement had only issued fines or citations against Oakes' two businesses: three to Seed to Table, with fines of $105, $255 and $405, and two to Oakes Farms Market, with fines of $105 and $225.

In his federal suit filed against the county last week in Fort Myers, Oakes alleged that the order is being "selectively enforced" and that he has been "targeted for enforcement."

More like this:Oakes Farms sues Lee school district over canceled contract after CEO's comments about COVID-19, Black Lives Matter

A county spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, but online code enforcement records suggest the fines stem from the businesses not complying after initial warnings. 

Records show officers visited Seed to Table July 24 and found that about 50% of the people they observed were not wearing masks.

"We spoke to the Manager Mr. St. Martin and advised him that the business was still in violation after the initial verbal warning given yesterday," comments for the case state. "I gave Mr. St. Martin a Notice of Violation and a copy of the Order. The notice was to comply by July 25th. I advised him Code would do a re-inspection at some point next week, and if the violation continues, a citation would be issued."

After the first complaint was lodged against Oakes Farms Market, officers noted during their initial inspection that they observed "numerous employees and customers without proper face masks."

Then on July 29 during a reinspection, an officer noted that seven to nine customers shopping were not wearing face covers and that "several employees (12)" also were not wearing masks.

"Violation exists," the officer wrote.

That same day officers visited Seed to Table again and "observed several employees and patrons not wearing face coverings," according to online records that describe it as a second offense.

"Mr. St. Martin acknowledged that he did not want to sign for the Citation and I advised that an affidavit of service would be completed," an officer wrote.

At Oakes Farms Market, officers issued a citation for a second offense on Aug. 3 after a visit to the business that day, online code enforcement records show. 

The original Oakes Farms Market has operated for more than 20 years on Davis Boulevard in East Naples.

That same day officers visited Seed to Table and issued another citation, according to online records that describe it as a third offense.

Two cases, one for Seed to Table and one for Oakes Farms Market, are being reviewed by the County Attorney's Office due to the pending lawsuit. 

A few other businesses have received more than one complaint, but code enforcement did not issue any fines after the businesses appeared to come into compliance, records show.

Complaints, for instance, were lodged twice so far against an LA Fitness gym on Vanderbilt Beach Road. The most recent complaint from Aug. 6 notes that trainers and employees at a smoothie counter inside the gym were not wearing masks. 

But online code enforcement records suggest management was receptive to correcting the violation.

An officer notes that during an Aug. 8 inspection the officer met with the manager and explained that employees have to be wearing masks at all times and members have to be wearing masks "unless they are actively working out." 

The manager stated he thought gyms were exempt from the order and that he would take care of it, according to the officer's comments. 

"He will have the employees at the sign-in desk ask members to wear masks while not working out and place a sign on the door stating the same," the officer wrote.

Pelican Larry's on Immokalee Road also drew two complaints.

Code enforcement officers visited the eatery twice in late July, noting that staff and patrons were not wearing masks, online records show. During the first visit the manager had left for the night, and an officer left a copy of the order with the cashier.

During a third inspection Aug. 3, an officer talked with the kitchen manager, who was in charge at the time of the visit.

The manager told the officer the business was "fully aware they are being watched not only by Code Enforcement but by their owner through their own security cameras."

He "states they have every intent to be compliant, no violations found while on site," the officer wrote.

During a visit five days later an officer noted that six employees were observed and all were wearing masks, although one female employee had the mask covering her chin and mouth, leaving her nose exposed.

The Beach Box Cafe, a popular bar and eatery not far from Vanderbilt Beach, also received two complaints.

But when an officer visited July 28 "all the staff was wearing a mask," according to online code enforcement records. During another inspection on Aug. 7 an officer wrote that he saw customers eating and drinking inside and outside of the establishment. 

"I observed signage saying that mask were required," the officer wrote. "Employees were wearing mask behind the bar area. I only observed (1) male employee no (sic) wearing his face covering properly."

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.