“If I ever see you doing that again, sir, I’m going to not only ask you to leave the store but you will not be allowed to shop here again.”
That was a manager at my local grocery store in Philadelphia speaking to me just a few weeks ago. While shopping I received an important call, and I spoke on the phone with my mask pulled down below my chin so I wouldn’t be muffled. The manager saw this and confronted me about it. I was wearing a cloth mask, which as we know by now are mostly ineffective. But that doesn’t matter. The manager was right, and I was wrong. There’s a mask mandate for stores in the city, and I was temporarily violating it.
I apologized. I felt bad for him. He’s just a young guy working a job that’s already tough and now made tougher because, in addition to all his other duties, he has to play mask cop and yell at people like me – a regular customer who spends money there – who violate the city’s rules.
Yet, compared to other businesses, this grocery store has it relatively easy. I’m fully vaccinated, but even if I weren’t, I’d still be allowed to spend my money there as long as I was wearing a mask — even an ineffectual cloth one. Employees at restaurants in Philadelphia now need to turn away any potential customers who don’t have proof of vaccination. And because Philly is such a liberal town, many other businesses, from theaters to gyms, are doing the same or inviting a PR nightmare.
Most of the few people still walking around the streets of Philly – many of them young people – are in the open air with no one near them, yet they are still wearing those cloth masks and have a look of fear in their eyes as if the Kaiser is going to wage a mustard gas attack at any moment. Many stores and restaurants have closed because of the COVID-hysteria currently sweeping the city. Many others have been forced to limit operations because asymptomatic employees who test positive are now staying home for extended periods of time to “be safe.” Except, for some reason, health care workers. They’re magically exempt from the city’s rules.
“Our traffic is down 50 percent,” a client, a once-profitable restaurant owner, told me. “I don’t know how long this can go on. No one wants to come in the city. Residents are afraid to go out and eat.” It’s bleak. It’s sad. It’s depressing. It’s Philadelphia in the winter of 2022, and small businesses are suffering.
So, I went to Florida. My wife and I have been in the Ft. Myers area for over two weeks, working from an apartment we rented. Want to know what it’s like here? Imagine it’s 2019. You get the idea.
Yesterday, I drove to the Publix supermarket to pick up a few items. Then I stopped by a local bike shop. My wife and I ate lunch at a crowded diner on Sanibel Island. I’ve been to bars, shops and restaurants. This week I spoke for two days at a conference held in a resort in Naples, about an hour away. There were 600 people there. I arrived early and worked in the lobby as crowds milled around me. I spoke in a room with no social distancing in place. On the way back to Ft. Myers I waited in line at a packed Jersey Mike’s for a tuna sandwich (Mike’s Way, of course).
All this time I saw no masks. Or if I did, they were worn by either the very elderly and high risk (as they should be) or a scared-looking Millennial who was probably from Philly or New York. People went about their business. Why? Because in Florida, COVID-19 isn’t a big deal. No more so than the flu during a typical winter. Of course, no one wants to get COVID. But most here seem to know that if they do, the chances of it leading to death, even hospitalization, are minute.
Meanwhile, the businesses here are thriving. There are no mandates. No employees being forced to play mask cop. No judgment. Why?
Because Florida’s leaders have enough respect for their business community to allow them to make their own decisions about how safely they want to run their businesses. In Philly the leaders have a different take. They seem to think that their local businesses are incapable of making those decisions, and therefore they impose rules on them as if they are children, regardless of the impact it has on their or their employees’ livelihoods.
And yet the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Florida are similar to the numbers in Pennsylvania. It’s why unemployment is so much higher in Philly than here in Florida. It’s why the economy in Florida is so much better than in Philly. Business owners are being allowed to run their businesses. People here are living with COVID. Thanks to their leaders, people in Philly are living in fear of COVID. That’s a big difference. And the difference is stark.
I love Philadelphia. But I am not looking forward to returning to my hometown in two weeks. I’m leaving the sunshine and warmth of Ft. Myers and going to a much sadder and depressing place. Now I know why so many people are moving to Florida, and why Pennsylvania and New Jersey are losing so many residents. Is it just the weather? I don’t think so. It’s really about how people – and small businesses – are treated by their local governments.
Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.