Backlash to masks

As Butte County reopens, businesses wary of public’s response to face-covering policies

Sue Reed, owner of Bootleg used clothing boutique. (photo by Jason Cassidy)

The Bookstore has been closed since March 19, as have most other “nonessential” businesses in Chico due to the coronavirus pandemic. In early April, the shop partially re-opened—for contactless curbside sales—and since then owners Muir Hughes and Josh Mills have been hunkered down behind the locked glass doors, gathering books for orders to keep their business afloat.

During that time, as the wife and husband team donned face coverings and sterilized surfaces in an effort to keep their customers and family healthy—protective measures recommended by the nation’s primary health agency—they’ve watched through the windows with concern as the largely mask-free public continued to congregate downtown, ignoring stay-at-home and physical-distancing guidelines, and in some cases taking out frustrations on local businesses.

“Somebody yelled at Josh that he was an ignorant communist,” Hughes recalled during a recent interview. “And then a really nice older couple—they’re in the time of their life that automatically puts them in a vulnerable population, and they wanted to come in.” When the maskless man and woman were told the store wasn’t currently open to the public, they went on “a tirade about the governor out front,” she said.

As parts of America began reopening in recent weeks with businesses implementing new policies to protect public health, complaints ranging from inconvenience to infringement of individual rights set off protests and boycotts. In addition, reports of harassment, intimidation and violence toward retail and service industry workers surfaced, especially at places requiring customers to don face coverings.

Such stories weigh on the minds of local business owners as Butte County advances further into reopening. Indeed, some expressed trepidation about implementing a safety measure they fear could spur similar backlash.

The Bookstore co-owner Muir Hughes takes a break from filling curbside orders. (photo by Josh Mills)

Anxiety spreads

One of the most high-profile protests related to COVID-19 came when Costco announced that a company-wide face covering mandate would go into effect on May 4, triggering a #BoycottCostco campaign that flooded social media. Days earlier, a Van Nuys Target employee’s arm was broken in an altercation with two men who were being escorted out of the store for not wearing masks. And that same day in Flint, Mich., Calvin Munerlyn, a security guard at a Family Dollar, was shot and killed by the brother of a woman who was refused service for not wearing a mask.

All the tension over masks prompted Sue Reed to reach out via social media and seek input on behalf of local businesses, including her downtown Chico clothing boutique, Bootleg.

“There have been some people online who have been making some pretty harsh statements about being required to wear masks,” Reed explained. Her initial Facebook query got more than 400 responses in one day, nearly all in favor of her requiring masks when she reopens.

“It’s extremely disconcerting, and it’s such a deviation from the way I was raised,” said Reed about the people who mistrust the advice of health-care professionals. “My dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse. I don’t believe that anyone in public health, or local nurses or doctors are in any way fake or nefarious or have an agenda.

“My thing is, if you are worried, if you want to know what to do, ask a nurse,” she continued.

When it comes to masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that members of the public “cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others. … The cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.”

Some states and cities (e.g., Oregon and Los Angeles) have made such coverings mandatory. Elsewhere, like Butte County—which issued a press release on April 30 in which Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Miller strongly recommended wearing them—it’s been left up to individual businesses as to whether or not to require them.

As for workers in Butte County, according to the county’s reopening plan, if they aren’t able to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing, then business owners should require them to wear face coverings.

“As we move further into Stage 2 of reopening, more people will be moving through the community and visiting businesses, which may increase the risk of more Covid-19,” said Lisa Almaguer, communications manager for Butte County Public Health. “So wearing a face covering is a very important step to help limit the spread of the virus.”

Compliance is one issue, but potential violence is an additional concern that compounds an already stressful situation.

“We have a couple of employees, [and we’re] super nervous having them work with aggressive or violent people,” said Hughes. “They’re supposed to be selling books. It’s completely unfair to ask them not only to be exposed—as limited as possible—to the public, and then have this sort of backlash about some of the really basic standard ideas of how to reduce the spread.”

There is also a political undercurrent to the anti-mask fervor, with differences split along party lines. A recent Associated Press poll reveals that 76 percent of Democrats said they wear a face covering when leaving the home, compared with 59 percent of Republicans. The divergence makes sense considering President Trump has refused to wear one throughout the pandemic and Vice President Mike Pence’s infamous decision to eschew the safety measure while visiting the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last month.

“When we don’t have leadership—on a lot of different levels—that says consistently that we need to be doing this, or if we have leaders that they themselves don’t wear masks, it’s really a demonstration saying that this isn’t real, and so there is a disconnect,” added Hughes.

The sign is ready for when Bootleg reopens. (poster by John Reed)

Adding to the overall confusion is the fact that, early in the coronavirus crisis, the CDC didn’t recommend face coverings for the general public unless a person was already showing signs of sickness. At least part of the reasoning was based on shortages of personal-protective equipment and concern that a run on surgical masks and N95 respirators would diminish supplies for hospital workers. However, after reviewing evidence that those with COVID-19 who had no symptoms (asymptomatic) and those who had yet to present symptoms (pre-symptomatic) could potentially transmit the disease, the CDC changed its guidelines on April 3 to include wearing them (preferably made up of multiple layers of breathable fabric that can be washed after each use).

“I wear a mask to protect you and you wear a mask to protect me,” said Almaguer, underlining the basic motivation for the recommendation.

Overall, it appears the public largely understands the benefits. The anti-mask contingent might be making a lot of noise, but a Gallup poll conducted May 4-10, shows that majority of Americans—76 percent—think it is important to wear a face mask in public.

‘Health is the ultimate wealth’

In terms of questions about private businesses’ right to mandate mask-wearing, Almaguer said it’s clear-cut.

“They may absolutely require it,” she stressed. “Businesses can make rules that need to be followed in their own stores. Any business that decides to require face coverings—Public Health fully supports their decision.”

As an essential business, Collier Hardware has remained open throughout the pandemic, and the owners of the downtown Chico institution have been requiring face coverings in their store since the first week of the shutdown orders.

Sign of the times—outside Collier Hardware. (photo by Jason Cassidy)

“The city of Chico and the Public Health, they came by and talked to us and we just decided, ‘Why not?’” said co-owner Matt Lucena. And through early May, the customer reaction has been largely positive.

“I would probably say 95 percent of the people have been great,” Lucena said. “A lot of customers who come into the store appreciate it. Our employees are appreciative that the customers are doing it. We have had the few customers that blow up at us: yell at us, cuss us out and storm out of the store.”

Hughes and Reed say the their respective shops will require face coverings when they reopen to the public—and both will be selling handmade masks (and offering freebies when feasible) for those who show up without.

“It’s really about maintaining the rights of health and safety for all,” Reed said. “It’s all such a weird experiment in what we’re willing to do for one another.

“I do believe that health is the ultimate wealth, and if you don’t have it, there’s really nothing else.”