The culture clash over requiring customers to wear masks

(Photo courtesy Hannah Lies, Alaska Public Media.)
(Photo by Hannah Lies / Alaska Public Media.)

A handful of states around the country have made requirements for public face coverings in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Alaska is not one of them, which means individual business owners have to decide whether or not to require masks in their buildings.

Megan Cotter is the manager of ShuzyQs, a shoe store in South Anchorage. The store is requiring customers to wear masks. Cotter said that, at first, there didn’t seem to be a problem.

“Well, in the beginning, people usually would give a reason — they say, ‘Well, well, I have one in the car, let me go get it,” Cotter said. “But now they just don’t have them. They don’t care and they just say, ‘Well, forget you.’ And they leave and they sometimes they are not very nice about it.”

Cotter admits she’s losing some customers to the policy, but thinks she’d lose even more if she didn’t require masks. People like to feel safe, she said.

“They might not like it, but they do it because they know that it is a request and they know that it makes other people feel comfortable,” she said.

Without any requirements from the city, customers themselves are also left to make decisions about which stores to patronize, depending on their comfort level. Most of them deal with mask requirements, even though they may not like them.

Cheryl Cosseboom, a flight attendant who spent a recent afternoon shopping in downtown Anchorage, falls into that category.

“I would do it for my family, I hope they would do it for me,” she said. “And then I want things to open up. I want life to come back to some normalcy. And if this is a small way I can participate, it’s easy for me.”

Cosseboom said that she usually wears a mask in businesses, regardless of the store policy, but she’s not actively seeking out businesses that require masks.

63-year-old artist Joyce Coolidge doesn’t want to risk going into a business that isn’t taking health precautions seriously. She also has friends and family who have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19. So she started a Facebook group to share information.

“I started thinking that maybe 50 of my friends would be in this group and we just kind of let each other know what we saw and we’re safer places where to go,” she said. “And it grew and it just kept on growing.”

Now the group has 1,800 members posting reviews of businesses and their safety policies. Plus, there’s color-coded maps, and safety reviews from establishments around town. She thinks the group has become a tool to direct the purchasing power to incentivize mask requirements and other safety measures. But she also inadvertently stumbled into a political fight.

From the start, Coolidge tried to make sure the posts were positive, she said.

Instead of publicly calling out businesses with poor safety protocols, she encouraged followers to highlight businesses with good ones. Not everyone who was part of the group got that memo, though, and one day she said she woke up to discover that she was the target of online trolls who had read about her group in a conservative political blog, accusing her group of being tattletales.

“It was mostly making fun of us for living in fear, or people would repeat that old information that masks don’t work,” she said, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a face covering in public when social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

“Some of the things were just rude, really didn’t have to do with mask or anything,” she said.

Requests to join her group skyrocketed, and she had to find someone to help her sort through requests that were genuine and those who were trying to join in order to troll her.

Coolidge says she was shocked that somehow the decision of whether or not to encourage mask-wearing had become political.

“It’s a medical deal. It’s not political,” she said.

But there is a movement against mask-wearing that has largely attracted far-right and politically libertarian followers.

Kay Ballentine is a co-founder of the OpenAlaska Facebook group, which was started to push for a quicker reopening of Alaska’s economy. It’s attracted a huge following of 6,500 people including some prominent Republican figures. Lately, discussion on the group has focused a lot on masks.

“My main reason that I don’t want to wear masks in businesses is that I was raised in a free country,” she said.

Ballentine and many others on the group say that they will actively avoid businesses that require masks be worn. But sometimes, Ballentine said she needs to make a Costco trip, and that company was one of the early adopters of a mask requirement for customers. She said that wearing a mask makes her dizzy, and she drops it below her nose while inside until she starts feeling better.

“I’ve never been approached by an employee wearing a mask. But I did get several looks from people when I just had it off,” she said.

And she says, that’s a problem. She feels it’s a form of shaming, where people wear masks to prove their moral superiority and judge those who may have legitimate health reasons not to wear a mask.

To be clear, the CDC and World Health Organization do recommend that even people with asthma or respiratory illness wear masks when they have to go out in public, except in severe cases and with the consultation with a doctor. It might make it harder to breathe, but people with asthma are also more susceptible to the disease. But Ballentine says there are other situations where people might rush to judge someone who isn’t wearing a mask.

“Let’s talk about the special needs community because I have a special needs son. I can’t take him to the museum – for a while I couldn’t take him to the zoo – because he can’t wear the face-covering. He won’t keep it on,” she said.

She says that she can’t explain her situation to everyone she passes and she fears that her son will miss out on opportunities.

That consideration hasn’t stopped an increasing number of businesses to adopt a face-covering requirement for customers. And most customers – two-thirds – according to a recent study by the city of Anchorage and the University of Alaska Anchorage – report wearing masks when they leave their homes.

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