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Front-Line Workers Feel The Burden Of State-Level Mask Mandates

A sign on the door at a Walgreens in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A sign on the door at a Walgreens in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In late May, a Waffle House employee in Colorado was shot and wounded. The reason? A patron allegedly grew angry after the employee told him to wear a mask, according to multiple reports.

It’s not the only time this has happened while enforcing mask rules. Grocery store employees in New Orleans faced gunfire. In Michigan, a security guard was killed. The Trace has tracked at least 13 shootings related to coronavirus restrictions. At least two people have died.

“They’re putting us in a dangerous position,” said Wanda Coker, a fast food worker and member of NC Raise Up/Fight for $15, a worker-led movement organizing for a $15 minimum wage and union rights for all workers.

Coker has worked in fast food for three decades. She lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but commutes to Raleigh for work. For health reasons, she’s considered high-risk. She’s more worried about contracting COVID-19 than she is about an altercation with a belligerent customer.

“I have my little worries,” Coker said. “I’m not going to say that I’m completely worry-free, because you never know. Because this world is getting crazy right now.”

Mostly she said it’s just a lot harder to go in to work, as front-line workers are being asked to enforce these rules.

“We’re not getting any extra pay for this,” she said. “We’re not getting hazard pay for even coming in working with this pandemic going on, let alone getting extra money for trying to enforce laws that we didn’t come up with.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks in public settings, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Businesses around the world are requiring masks, and people everywhere are annoyed. But nowhere else are these people as likely to be armed as in America. And studies have shown that access to firearms increases the risk for firearm violence.

Gun violence has spiked in many areas during the pandemic, leaving local leaders to grapple with reducing violence while also fighting a pandemic. So far, violence over public health rules appears to be limited to a handful of cases. But it is an ever-present risk, especially for those on the front lines.

“The uniquely American situation where disputes or conflicts over wearing a mask are resolved with a gun, just goes to show that more guns do not make us more safe,” said Shannon Klug, a volunteer with the North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action.

Klug does not oppose gun ownership. In fact, she’s a 24-year Air Force veteran and a gun owner herself. But she strongly supports additional regulations that would increase safety.

“The right to own a firearm should be seen as a reward for a law-abiding citizen,” she said. “And I’d like to see that word ‘law-abiding’ refer to a citizen that has registered a weapon, had training on the safe operation and storage of that weapon, and is held accountable for their firearm.”

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Many businesses require patrons to wear masks, but have also told store employees not to engage with unruly customers.

Jason deBruyn / WUNC

From a cultural perspective, refusing to wear a mask and wanting to own a gun for personal protection have similarities. Both are about personal rights and liberties. That’s something many Americans value strongly, said Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi, an epidemiologist at North Carolina A&T University.

“Our culture — or a wing within it — makes this an issue about personal liberty rather than public health,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s taken that angle. Workers need to be trained on understanding how people can go from zero to 100”

Also, the very fact that workers are also wearing masks could impede communication and actually make situations more tense.

“Half of communication is almost eliminated because you can’t see people’s facial expressions. So, there can easily be moments which are misread and this can lead to conflict, right?” Obeng-Gyasi said. “Body language is a lot more important now.”

But even with some training, Obeng-Gyasi said there’s no way a short video course or even a few hours of training would come close to being enough: “I mean, you can’t ask someone to become a social psychologist within two weeks, you know? You can’t expect people to be put in these complex situations where there are so many layers.”

And that means in some cases, workers have been simply told to not engage. After reports of violence, retailers including Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, CVS, and Walgreens have instructed employees not to engage if customers refuse to wear face coverings.

“For safety reasons, we have asked our employees to avoid escalated confrontations with non-compliant customers,” according to a CVS Health spokesperson.

Still, he noted that the pharmacy chain does require masks. If a customer refuses to wear a mask, employees should help the customer make purchases quickly, and give them information about alternatives to in-store shopping, including home delivery, or drive-through pickup.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, Obeng-Gyasi says, the companies want to mitigate risk.

“They’re cognizant of the fact that these things can escalate very quickly and there have actually been a few shootings, unfortunately,” said Obeng-Gyasi. “So I mean it’s a very complex ongoing issue, for which employees need some training to recognize threats.”

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.