Mask Fights: America Is Fighting Over Coronavirus Safety

On any given day, somewhere in the United States, someone is going to wake up, leave the house and get in a huge argument with a stranger about wearing masks.

Grocery store managers are training staff on how to handle screaming customers. Fistfights are breaking out at convenience stores. Some restaurants even say they’d rather close than face the wrath of various Americans who believe that masks, which help prevent the spread of coronavirus, impinge on their freedom.

Joe Rogers, 47, a resident of Dallas, said that just last week, he had gotten in a physical fight over masks.

In line at a Mini-Mart, he spotted a customer behind him not wearing a mask, he said, and he shook his head. The man asked why Mr. Rogers had been looking at him and Mr. Rogers, again, shook his head.

“I wear a full face guard, the mask that they use when they spray pesticides,” he said. “He reached for my mask and tried to pull it off.” Mr. Rogers said his “natural instinct” came out and he put his hand up and knocked the man to the floor.

In Dallas, beginning June 19, businesses were required to ensure customers and staff wore masks. Mr. Rogers said that though he had not hit another person in “a decade or so” that this was not the first altercation he’d had over masks.

“I’ve already been in several,” he said. “I’ve been in shouting matches with people at CVS. People just don’t understand it. If everyone just wore a mask, this would be over.”

Mr. Rogers’s brother, Jason Rogers, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas’s 57th district, said that he was aware of the confrontation and expressed support for his brother. “This is Texas, you know,” he said. “Stand your ground.”

Masks were already a political flash point, and months of mixed messages about their usefulness have contributed to the confusion. Now, they’re also fodder for viral videos.

A surge of reported cases of coronavirus in states like California, Texas and Florida has led authorities in those states to issue new guidance on masks. Evidence suggests masks can help prevent transmission of the virus even when worn by seemingly healthy people.

Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said several times that those without symptoms did not have to wear masks. On April 3, the agency shifted, saying that masks should be worn in public.

But President Trump, announcing the new guidance, said, “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself” and has continued to appear in public without a mask. On Sunday, after months of shunning a mask himself, Vice President Mike Pence urged Americans to wear them.

Orders regarding masks that carry the force of law have been left to individual states. And in states where altercations over masks have been reported, those orders have recently changed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California ordered the mandatory wearing of masks in public on June 18. A little more than a week later, Hugo’s Tacos, a taqueria with two locations in the Los Angeles area, announced that it would close temporarily because its staff was “exhausted by the constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks.”

The chief executive of Hugo’s, Bill Kohne, said that it was only in the last few weeks that the encounters had become so vitriolic. His staff had been confronted with racist language, he said, and he was concerned for their safety. Recently, one of Mr. Kohne’s facility managers supervising one of the storefronts observed five confrontations over masks in a single hour.

”The one that we most viscerally remember is that a customer at the pickup window who was asked to wear a mask literally threw a cup of water through the window at the clerk,” Mr. Kohne said.

He provided The New York Times with an email from a customer that he said was representative of many customers’ attitudes.

“Why is it the responsibility of a taco stand to dictate to its customers a personal freedom of choosing to wear or not wear a mask!” it said, concluding: “Go to hell taco man. Close permanently! Do us all a favor!”

(The person who sent the email did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.)

Public fights over masks have occurred with extraordinary frequency, service workers say, and far exceed the large number of those already captured by smartphones in viral videos.

Confrontations are taking place even in states that have been more consistent in guidance about masks. Massachusetts required that residents wear masks in grocery stores starting in early May. Still, Alli Milliken, 20, who returned to her job at a grocery store chain in the state several weeks ago, has already seen a conflict. She said that recently a customer wearing a mask called out another customer who was not.

“The unmasked guy shrugged at him and was like, ‘It’s a free country. The virus isn’t real. I can do what I want,’” Ms. Milliken said. “The masked guy then says, ‘I work in a hospital. I’ll be seeing you soon, buddy.’”

Ms. Milliken said that she had not been given any training or direct instruction on de-escalating conflict between customers.

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“I don’t know how to go about saying, ‘Oh you should be wearing a mask,’” she said. “I don’t know what my place is.”

The conflicts over masks have been particularly difficult for essential workers, who have been working long shifts and dealing with frazzled and frenzied customers throughout the pandemic.

Londyn Robinson, 26, a medical student in Minnesota, said that her mother, a manager at a big box store in South Florida, was now having to instruct her staff on how to defuse tense situations, along with working long shifts and sanitizing the store.

“I never in a million years would have thought that working in a grocery store would have been considered a high-risk job,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

Ms. Robinson’s mother, who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of losing her job, said that in the last two to three weeks, fights over masks had become astonishingly frequent. It was not uncommon for the police to be called to her store three to four times a day, she said.

“We’ve had shoppers go after each other,” she said. “Pushing matches, running carts into each other, running over people’s feet, ankles.”

She said that many of the staff members she supervised were already working 12 to 14 hour days and had been doing so since March. (There were physical conflicts with shoppers then, too; Ms. Robinson’s mother said she was slapped in the back of a neck by a customer who was frustrated that the store had run out of toilet paper.)

Even offering masks to customers did not work, she said: “They’ll outright decline or they’ll show you a fraudulent card that says, ‘You can’t ask me to do this.’”

The fighting between customers creates a tension that does not dissipate once the altercation has ended, she said. She no longer feels comfortable walking to her car alone after the store closes, concerned that an aggravated customer may be waiting for her there.

“Now we go two to three employees at a time,” she said.

In Florida, where cases of the virus have been rising rapidly, the state had not issued any official rules on masks as of Tuesday morning, leaving the decision in the hands of counties, localities and small businesses. (The state’s department of health issued a public advisory on June 20 recommending masks.)

Chris McArthur runs Black and Brew coffee in Lakeland, Fla., which is in a county where Mr. Trump won 55 percent of the vote in 2016. Mr. McArthur decided on Monday to begin requiring customers to wear masks at the business’s two locations.

“We had actually been mulling it over for a couple of weeks,” he said. “We were hoping that our city commission would pass an ordinance that would require it locally. Our fear was that if we went out on a limb, because it wasn’t the norm, we would receive a lot of backlash from our customers.”

Still, Mr. McArthur made the decision. “We felt like if we did that, other businesses might follow our lead and our customers might appreciate the extra precautionary measures that we were taking,” he said.

He said that he hoped that conflicts would not arise. But he expects them to, and has coached staff on how to respond. If a customer becomes belligerent, he said, “We would have to call the nonemergency line and hope that the police are available to come help us out.”

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