Florida anti-mask group rewarded maskless diners with free grilled cheese

WATCH: Anti-mask activists rally inside a grilled cheese shop in Windermere, Fla., on July 11, 2020.

Anti-mask advocates were handing out free food to people who rejected science-based safety measures in Florida on Saturday, the same day the state set a new record with 15,300 new reported cases of COVID-19.

The giveaway happened during an anti-mask protest at 33 & Melt, a grilled cheese restaurant in Windermere, Fla., Reuters reports. Activists paid for people’s food after they agreed not to cover their faces, and the restaurant owner refused to enforce Orange County’s mandatory mask rule under her roof, Newsweek reports.

The incident played out in a state where conspiracy theories and anti-science rhetoric have frequently clashed with medical advice around the coronavirus, including doctor recommendations that people wear masks to stop its spread.

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Agents with the Florida Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed up at the grilled cheese restaurant on Saturday afternoon to speak to owner Carrie Hudson about the protest in a noisy moment that was caught on video.

The video shows dozens of maskless people shouting at the agents while they speak to Hudson behind the counter of the restaurant. The agents and restaurant staff appear to be the only ones wearing masks.

Protest leaders stirred up several chants to defend the restaurant owner and denounce the mask rules, which are based on the best public health advice on the virus.

“Stand down, stand down, stand down!” they shouted at the agents.

The agents ultimately let Hudson off with a warning and walked out of the store with protesters following along behind them.

“This is America!” protester Chris Nelson shouted at the officers. “It’s not communist China!”

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Florida is currently the hottest spot for the coronavirus in the United States, which leads the world in overall cases (3.3 million) and deaths (135,000), according to New York Times data. The state broke a record with 15,300 new cases of the virus on Saturday, then took a slight dip to about 12,600 new cases on Sunday. That’s the second-highest reported case count in the state since the outbreak began.

Nevertheless, the state has pressed forward with efforts to restart its economy by leaving mask rules up to individual counties and allowing many businesses to remain open.

Walt Disney World, for example, reopened its doors on the same record-setting day as the no-mask protest. The park, which is about 19 kilometres away from 33 & Melt, opened up on Saturday with enhanced security measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

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Nelson, an anti-mask protester, claimed in an interview that he was simply trying to support a local business.

“This is a single woman who is running this grilled cheese business, this is her dream and all she is doing is standing up for the rights of people to make their own decisions,” he told WFTV. “And you know what? You want to call me selfish for not wearing a mask? I want to say to you, all the people calling me selfish, you are the one who is trying to force me, a medical procedure, so you can feel more safe.”

It’s unclear what Nelson meant by “medical procedure,” as masks are simply hooked around the ears with an elastic.

Health officials around the world, including in the U.S. and Canada, have said that masks prevent people from spreading the coronavirus through respiratory droplets expelled when they speak or breathe. Wearing a mask is meant to protect others from the wearer, who may be infected and not know it.

“This is a virus that is very well-contained,” anti-mask advocate Tara Hill told Reuters on the same day the state hit a new record for cases. “Everyone is responsible for their own health-care decisions,” she added. “We want our choices respected as well.”

Several doctors issued grave warnings about the direction of the pandemic in Florida on Monday.

“We really need to work on this together,” said Dr. Lilian Abbo, chief for infection prevention at Jackson Health System.

“Miami is now the epicentre of the epidemic,” she told the Associated Press. “What we were seeing in Wuhan (China) six months ago, no, we are there.”

Dr. Aileen Marty, an epidemiologist at Florida International University, said the public is not taking the virus seriously enough.

“They have not adhered to guidelines,” she said Monday during an online press conference with the mayor of Miami-Dade County. “They have been in those closed spaces without taking the appropriate precautions, and that’s the main reason we are where we are.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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