In May 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a significant change in its COVID-19 mask mandated policy. Namely, the CDC enunciated that fully vaccinated persons “can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” Besides encouraging fully vaccinated individuals to resume activities “prior to the pandemic,” the guideline will likely reduce tensions among proponents and opponents of COVID-19 related mask wearing that has gripped American society. Yet, it is improbable the discord surrounding mask wearing—aggravated by politicians, pundits, social media, fringe groups, politically active individuals, and others—will dissipate completely. This is so despite research demonstrating that mask wearing “has been a valuable tool in the fight against COVID-19, helping to keep people from spreading germs and protecting others from inhaling them.” Isolated incidents of violent crimes arising from enforcement of masking measures are likewise problematic.
As of the third week of May 2021, 24 U.S. states and territories had mask mandates. In July 2020, 27 U.S. states had such measures. Mask mandates differ: some “require a face covering anytime an individual leaves his or her residence, while others provide detailed instructions for where masks must be worn.” A May 28, 2021, NBC News report differentiated state mandates along three lines: 21 states with no mask mandates, 19 states requiring masks “in some or all situations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people,” and 10 necessitating masks “in some or all situations for unvaccinated people.” As some businesses and other employers will not require workers and customers to prove they have been vaccinated before entering a premises, the mask-vaccination conundrum will rest, in part, on an honor system, which is inherently subject to abuse. For a time, some businesses, including fast food establishments, side-stepped the dilemma of enforcing mask wearing by in-person customers by offering only drive-thru services. Also, in selected areas of the country, business and retail workers have expressed their concern over the removal of mask mandates as they perceive some unvaccinated customers will go forego mask, raising the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
In March 2021, Texas Governor Mask removed the statewide mandate for masks while the majority of Texas residents were unvaccinated. Consequently, “the tough choice to enforce health guidance fell to business owners.” In essence, “rules are only effective if people are willing to follow them,” and the will of those who could potentially enforce them—government, industry, and fellow citizens. In April 2021, Utah Governor Spencer Cox stated, “Businesses and public services have the right under the law to continue requiring masks in their establishments if they choose.” Likewise, prospective customers can choose to avoid such stores if they decide as such.
Mask enforcement has engendered (further) political divisiveness, second-guessing, and recriminations. The June 2021 revelation that Dr. Anthony Fauci wrote in a February 2020 email “that store-bought masks were ‘really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection’” might further fuel a disdain for face coverings. Analogously, further complicating the business setting, are firms offering different pricing for vaccinated/unvaccinated customers. For instance, in Florida in May 2021, a concert promoter, offered “$18 tickets to anyone who is vaccinated and charge $999.99 for everyone else.” Other firms set out another approach, such as: “Fully Vaxxed? No need to mask! Not Vaxxed? Please mask.”
Against this backdrop, it is useful to look at mask wearing enforcement and violence at retail and service businesses spurred by the pandemic. While the number of people utilizing violence to enforce or avoid mask wearing has waned with the relaxation of mask mandates, it is nevertheless, troublesome, peculiar, and indicative of our citizenry’s inclination for violence, as noted by rising homicides in nearly every large city in 2020.
Mask Wearing Enforcement and Violence at Businesses
Particular anti-maskers flouted masking rules by ignoring requirements within privately owned businesses, and then when confronted, the antagonist refused to leave the premises or initiated verbal arguments, both of which are criminal acts. A person trespasses when refusing to leave a privately-owned place or engages in disorderly conduct when becoming verbally aggressive in public. Inevitably, some persons who resort to violence relative to mask wearing may concurrently suffer from mental health or other stressors (such as financial and interpersonal difficulties) that have been aggravated due to the pandemic.
According to one Canadian study, the “five core features of COVID-19-related stress: fear of danger and contamination, fear of adverse socio-economic consequences, checking and reassurance seeking, xenophobia (discrimination against foreigners) and traumatic stress symptoms (for example, pandemic-related nightmares).”
In July 2020, several industry associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation, and others, wanted public sector-designed masking guidelines namely: “a national mask standard, implemented locally, offers the surest way to protect public health and promote economic activity.” Enforcement of government and self-initiated mask mandates at some businesses have created strain with small segments of their customer base. Disturbingly, this dilemma has been punctuated by occasional violence. For example, in July 2020, the Retail Industry Leaders Association expressed alarm over “instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties.” Also, that month, a survey of over 4,000 McDonald’s employees found “that 44% of respondents said they had been verbally or physically assaulted after confronting customers who weren’t wearing masks.”
Among the most grave and troubling of consumer-on-consumer, customer-on-employee, and employee-on-consumer attacks associated with mask requirements are shared below. Some violence emanating from a refusal to wear a mask may not be tied with any ideological tenet mentioned earlier, but rather, a belief that nobody—not government, industry, or an individual—can tell the person what to do. For instance, in May 2020, a customer at a Waffle House in Aurora, Colorado, was charged with attempted murder after shooting a cook who had refused to accept the individual’s order unless he wore a mask. Also that month, a security guard at a Dollar Store in Flint, Michigan, was killed by the son of a woman who earlier in the day was in an altercation with the victim over his insistence that the patron’s daughter had to wear a mask while in the store.
In July 2020, two patrons at a Quality Dairy store in Windsor Township, Michigan—one masked, one unmasked—argued over the latter’s noncompliance with mask mandates. The unmasked individual stabbed the masked patron in the store’s parking lot. A sheriff’s deputy shot and killed the assailant following a traffic stop when the individual threatened the officer with a knife. Likewise, that month, a security guard shot and killed a patron outside at a store in Gardena, California, after the pair got into a dispute over the customer not wearing a mask. The security guard was charged with murder. At a Cigars International store in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania, a customer who was asked to wear a face covering inside the store declined to do so, took two cigars, and walked out the store. After being confronted by a store clerk, the customer fired two shots at the worker, and another into the air. The perpetrator has been charged with attempted murder, among other crimes. A different July 2020 incident involved a 54-year-old woman (and recent liver transplant recipient) who was shopping inside a New Jersey office supply store. An unmasked shopper approached her in the store. When the victim asked the unmasked shopper to wear a mask, the assailant pushed the victim to the floor and broke her leg.
In September 2020, a masked patron at a bar in West Seneca, New York, confronted an unmasked customer there about his failure to wear the mask. Following a verbal argument, the unmasked fellow pushed the other consumer, who banged his head on the ground and died several days later. The assailant was charged with criminally negligent homicide. In October 2020, two sisters were charged with attempted murder of a security guard at a Stipes clothing store in Chicago. The siblings had an altercation with the security guard, stabbing him 27 times after they refused to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer in order to shop at the store. Also in November 2020, NYPD investigated three separate and unrelated attacks by anti-maskers against people asking the attackers to wear a face covering. One involved the attacker cutting an IHOP employee, another involved a physical attack against a 60-year-old woman on an elevator at a subway station, and a 37-year-old male who was beaten and robbed on a train.
In January 2021, a MTA mobility bus driver in Baltimore, Maryland, was shot and killed by a man who was told to put on a face covering if he was going to ride the bus. The assailant followed the driver on his route, and gunned him down at his last stop that night. The perpetrator was charged with murder, among other counts. During the next month, a Tulane University police officer working security at a high school game in New Orleans, Louisiana, was shot and killed by an individual who tried to enter the gym without a mask. The perpetrator has been charged with first degree murder. In April 2021, The Stocklist, a clothing store in Salt Lake City, Utah, closed early after a customer who was asked to put on a mask by a store employee said “he would return with a gun and shoot everyone inside after leaving the store.” Later, the belligerent was charged with disorderly conduct. The incident took place after “Utah’s statewide mask mandated ended.”
Efforts to reduce such occurrences included an August 2020 Illinois law making the assault of a worker trying to enforce a public health guidance (e.g., mask requirement or social distance) an aggravated battery. Another response to this challenge was the CDC guidance (updated September 2020) encouraging retail and service firms to:
- “Offer customers options to minimize their contact with others and promote social distancing.”
- “Post signs that let customers know about policies for wearing masks, social distancing, and the maximum number of people allowed in a business facility.”
- “Advertise COVID-19 related policies on the business website.”
- “Provide employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, nonviolent response, and on any other relevant topics related to workplace violence response.”
- “Put in place steps to assess and respond to workplace violence.”
- “Remain aware of and support employees and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.”
- “Assign two workers to work as a team to encourage COVID-19 prevention policies be followed, if staffing permits.”
- “Install security systems (e.g., panic buttons, cameras, alarms) and train employees on how to use them.”
- “Identify a safe area for employees to go to if they feel they are in danger (e.g., a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm.”
As noted above, companies that have faced uncooperative customers who have refused to wear face coverings at a firm’s premises when requested as such. In response, businesses have refused entry to individuals, not offered services, or “excommunicated” them. An example of this last measure is Delta Airlines’ October 2020 step to add 460 individuals who declined to wear masks amid the pandemic to their “no-fly list.” Delta CEO Ed Bastian noted, "Wearing a mask is among the simplest and most effective actions we can take to reduce transmission, which is why Delta has long required them for our customers and our people.” In April 2021, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it was “extending the face mask requirement for individuals across all transportation networks throughout the United States, including at airports, onboard commercial aircraft, on over-the-road buses, and on commuter bus and rail systems through September 13.” The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1.6 million on the most recent Memorial Day, indicating that air travel is on an upswing, even with mask enforcement in place. Yet, in line with CDC guidelines on masking measures, in May 2021, several movie theater chains announced terminating mask wearing requirements for fully vaccinated patrons.
It is also true that outside of enforcement of mask wearing, customers and employees have committed violence crimes after the assailant was told the leave a premises due to disorderly conduct or even otherwise fairly mundane occurrences. A Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) study of active shooters found 333 such incidents between 1999-2019, of which 135 were mass killings. Among several of those active shooter incidents were attacks that arose when an assailant(s) returned to a business premises after being asked to leave due to unruly behavior. Similarly, in 2019, “964 women were shot and killed by their domestic partners compared to 211 men and women who died that year from mass shootings.” Clearly, a segment of the population has a propensity for violence that should otherwise arouse less confrontational behaviors.
As indicated above, the pandemic only magnified an already fragile psyche among some Americans, whose tendency for violence occurs, incredibly, at the smallest slight. Sadly, it is likely our nation’s enduring illness—resorting to violence all too frequently and unjustifiably—remains with its appending deadly toll even once the health risks from COVID-19 decline.