By Gabriella Borter
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - As jovial football fans crowded the streets and bars of Tampa on Saturday with hours to go until Super Bowl LV, hundreds were walking without face coverings through areas where the mayor has issued a mask mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Until this weekend, fans attending the Super Bowl LV Experience theme park along the Tampa Riverwalk have mostly been able to stay socially distant and largely appeared to comply with the mask mandate.
But as Friday ushered in a weekend typically marked by nationwide partying, more fans milled along the narrow Riverwalk in Super Bowl LV's humid host city, some carrying drinks and bumping shoulders as they passed, and many lowering their masks or skipping them altogether.
"I'm surprised that there are so many that are not wearing masks," said Sara Hannigan, a 58-year-old Clearwater, Florida resident who was wearing a Green Bay Packers mask on top of a surgical mask as she walked by a busy row of food vendors.
"It's up to them. I'm taking care of myself," Hannigan said, adding that she had not seen any enforcement besides a few people handing out free masks. "If they don't want to, I just stay away."
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor issued a mask mandate last month along the Tampa Riverwalk and around other popular destinations, which carried the possible penalty of a $500 fine for violators, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Representatives from the mayor's office and the Tampa police department did not immediately respond to Reuters' inquiry about whether anyone had been fined for violating the mask order, or how it was being enforced.
"We need everyone to take personal responsibility to keep themselves, other fans and our Tampa Bay community safe," Castor said in a statement on Jan. 28.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan told Reuters last week that he did not anticipate his officers would enforce COVID-19 measures other than reminding people to social distance.
"We really don’t want to get into being the mask police," Dugan said.
While the Super Bowl's usual series of celebrity parties is muted this year in Tampa due to the pandemic, a party hosted by rapper 50 Cent on Friday night drew consternation from the mayor of nearby St. Petersburg Florida after the celebrity news site TMZ published photos of maskless attendees shoulder-to-shoulder.
"This isn't how we should be celebrating the Super Bowl. It's not safe or smart. It's stupid. We're going to take a very close look at this, and it may end up costing someone a lot more than 50 cent," Mayor Rick Kriseman said on Twitter on Saturday.
The Tampa Police issued a statement on Saturday following reports of Friday night parties that violated COVID-19 protocols, saying the lack of compliance at some entertainment venues was "incredibly disappointing."
On the Riverwalk on Saturday afternoon, three volunteers from the City of Tampa Mayor's Youth Corps were offering free masks to hundreds of pedestrians wearing football jerseys, many of them eating and drinking as they walked.
The volunteers said they had found some eager recipients, but some passersby had laughed at their group's effort or commented that they were outside and therefore did not need a mask.
"People have the mindset where, if I'm outside, I don't need one," said the youth corps' 17-year-old Gabrielle Jones.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by David Gregorio)