When Karen and Friends Beads reopened May 1 after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, owner Mendy White posted a sign on the door: “No entry without a mask. If you don’t have one, we do.”
The policy instantly became a source of conflict. The very first day the shop reopened, White said a man who entered with his wife lifted his shirt to flash a gun when asked to put on a mask.
“I said, ‘Are you intending to shoot me over a mask?’” White said. “And I let it hang there. He said, ‘Well, I guess we don’t have to be here,’ and he left. But that could have escalated.”
The cheerful shop with walls decked in a rainbow assortment of hanging strands of beads had suddenly become a political war ground. Like many other workers during the pandemic, White has found herself unwillingly pulled into a fierce political fight over whether people should be required to wear masks inside businesses.
“I’m gonna be honest,” White said and took a deep breath. “I’m in a (expletive) bead shop. … Do you think I feel like I should have to carry a gun to come to work? It’s art. It’s craft. It’s design. It’s teaching people. … I’m not coming to a shooting range. This should be the happiest place.”
White said she felt like she had no choice to reopen due to financial reasons. She laid off her entire staff, helped them get unemployment payments and began operating the store alone every single day — many of her workers were elders and vulnerable to the virus. Her 72-year old mother has many health conditions that make her immune system fragile. White said she’s been wearing face masks around her mother since long before the pandemic began.
In recent days as cases in Florida and the U.S. surge high above pre-shutdown levels, many major retailers have announced that they will extend their policy to require customers to wear masks. Target, CVS Pharmacy, Walmart, Kohls and Publix are among them. Many small shops in downtown Melbourne feature handwritten signs asking customers to don face coverings.
Brevard has seen an increase in cases and deaths this month, with 41 of the county’s 58 total deaths recorded in July and 24 of those in just one week. As of Wednesday, the county had recorded 4,561 COVID-19 cases.
Mask policies and regulations have become a debate that tends to split on party lines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all Americans wear face coverings in public along with other safety measures such as staying six feet apart from others and washing hands often. In turn, many businesses and states or localities have mandated that people wear face masks.
Brevard County has opted not to mandate face masks, with the commissioners saying they don't believe requiring face coverings is their place. But many cities and towns on the Space Coast have weighed in and adopted mask mandates, including Cocoa Beach, Indialantic, Indian Harbour Beach, Melbourne Beach, Palm Shores, Satellite Beach and West Melbourne, creating a patchwork of rules.
Opponents of mask requirements, who are largely Conservative, say that mask laws or policies infringe upon their freedom and often don’t want to wear them because they believe the threat of the virus is overblown, that masks are ineffective or because they find them uncomfortable. President Donald Trump long refused to publicly wear a mask, then reversed his stance Monday to tweet a picture of himself wearing one and calling it a “patriotic duty.”
The charged emotions around masks have led to violence in some areas of the nation. Many media reports describe employees or customers being assaulted verbally and, in some cases, physically for asking patrons to wear masks. Conversely, police in Utah said Saturday that a Walmart shopper assaulted another who wasn’t wearing a mask, injuring her by ramming her cart with his own several times.
Space Coast Credit Union, which began requiring masks on June 29, sent an email to members with updated information on safety measures and urging them to comply with the mask requirements without arguing with employees.
“(Employees) do not have the authority to waive the face-covering requirement,” CEO Timothy Antonition wrote. “We have had instances of verbal abuse and aggression from some members due to the face-covering requirement. I need to be clear that we will not tolerate this behavior towards our Team Members.”
Tire Kingdom will begin requiring customers to wear face masks on Thursday. Parent company TBC Corporation prepared employees for this policy change by sending out guidance and a script to handle problematic customers. Employees are directed to “kindly ask customers to put on a mask, do not engage in escalated discussions, should any arise” and “promptly call local authorities if necessary,” a spokesperson said.
“We appreciate that the position might not be the most popular decision for everyone, but we are more focused on doing what we think is right,” Brian Maciak, executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for TBC Corporation, said. “We think this is the right decision to do our part to help flatten that curve … it’s a bit of a minor inconvenience for some, but we do think that most of the customers will understand that certainly our hearts in the right place.
In Brevard’s assortment of community Facebook groups, the mask debate is a constant source of disagreement and drama. People post lists of what they deem “safe” businesses with mask requirements — and then those lists generate argumentative replies.
Mask policies even show up in online reviews. For example, one positive Facebook review for Karen and Friends praised the shop’s policy. But another one-star Google review from a customer whose group of five was turned away along with a group of six that attempted to enter right after had harsh criticism for the store.
The review included a video that ended with an expletive and an obscene gesture directed at the shop door, followed by, “Hope you make your rental payment.”
The customer could have worn one of the face masks the store provides, White said.
White also allows customers to stand outside while she offers selections for them if they won’t wear a mask. Tire Kingdom offers curbside service and a “stay-in-car” service. Many stores have begun offering curbside pickup.
Some workers and business leaders say a lack of official guidance or legal policies where they operate places a burden on their employees to handle confrontations and make decisions themselves. Winn-Dixie’s parent company, Southeast Grocers, included that point in a statement after reversing its previous position and requiring masks in-store:
“We believe that the enforcement should be placed upon our state and federally elected officials, and we will continue to work with our peers in the retail industry to advocate for this sensible mandate to be passed into law to remove the burden from employers and their heroic frontline associates,” read the statement.
Karen and Friends Beads doesn't fall under any of the Brevard jurisdictions with mask mandates,leaving the decision and enforcement solely up to her.
“It causes me anxiety being here because when people walk through the door, if they don’t have a mask on, I’m expecting a fight now,” White said. “I’m expecting to be hollered at. ... And a mandate on a mask would stop essential workers and people who work for minimum wage from having to encounter this daily.”
Florida Today reported on this story