What Rights Do the Majority have When Dealing with the Unmasked?

GELFAND’S WORLD--It should never have been an issue. We are in the midst of a serious pandemic that obviously requires some adjusting on all of our parts.

But a vocal minority has jumped on the battle against wearing masks in public as their symbolic quest. Even in supposedly liberal Los Angeles County, it is becoming a substantial public fight. What rights do the rest of us have in staying safe – or at least as safe as possible in these dangerous times – from those who would flout the established rules of public safety? 

To state the question more formally: What is the proper balance between the requirement that people act prudently vs the pursuit of an unhinged freedom? A somewhat related question: How do we relate my right to visit a store with maximum safety to the rights of protestors to gather in public? There is an answer, and it doesn’t involve nit-picking. 

The latest such case to hit the news big time involves a woman (photo above) who gained entry to a Trader Joe’s store in North Hollywood, refused to wear a mask, and made a loud and dramatic scene that has now been shown all over the internet and on the tv news.

It’s quite a scene she made, screaming at high volume that she has a breathing problem that causes her doctor to forbid her to wear a mask. She angrily told Trader Joe’s employees that they are violating federal law, and claims to have been abused by a male shopper. He allegedly told her to “wear a F’n Mask.” 

In viewing the videos, it’s hard to believe that she is that disabled, to believe that because of some sort of medical problem she is unable to wear a mask. She is obviously capable of walking around, carrying a shopping basket, and projecting sound at a considerable volume. She is even capable of throwing a shopping basket onto the floor with considerable force, and then being able to walk away. In the video, she does not appear to have any sort of respiratory handicap. 

At least two local television stations gave the woman a chance to tell her side of the story. When you watch the tv clips and consider them from the journalistic standpoint, you have to say that the reporting was pathetic. What was missing? The most obvious question to ask her would have been to identify her supposed ailment and to ask for some sort of documentary evidence, perhaps ask for permission to talk to her doctor. But there is no evidence shown to television viewers that there was any such attempt. Maybe they did ask her, and maybe they didn’t, but normal practice in real journalism would be to show a little skepticism about such a questionable assertion, to ask her on camera, and to report her refusal to answer the question

Of course that would have made the whole thing a different story, wouldn’t it? The woman’s allegation is that she is being discriminated against due to her medical condition and, as she asserts in the original cell phone video, that there is a federal law which protects her. The more likely story is that she was, at the time, essentially a malingerer who was making up a story about breathing difficulties in order to make a political statement in a loud, dramatic, and very public way. She made that clear as she walked out, calling the store employees, “Democratic pigs, all of you.” 

So what is the real story? That’s what professional journalists should have been tracking down. 

Admittedly, the initial television news could have simply run with the original tantrum, but to then give the woman a podium at a later time, after she had had the time to get her story straight – that implies the need for a higher level of journalistic care. 

And this is critical, because the question involves the public right to remain safe from an infectious, often lethal, disease. 

Do I have a reasonable expectation that Trader Joe’s will protect me from maskless people who may be breathing out the corona virus? How does this balance with the rights of people to be left alone in their everyday lives, including the right to ignore mask wearing as an essential element of public hygiene? 

The answer is obvious and straightforward, and should have been made clear by the television writers. Public safety demands that people adhere to the mask rule while shopping in stores at this time. The fact that some people don’t like the rule and would prefer to disregard it is as irrelevant as the fact that some people like to drive at 100 miles per hour and run red lights. We can see some of those reckless drivers on the late news too, but I don’t recall Channel 7 offering a forum to one of the arrested drivers to explain why he should be excused from being held to traffic rules. 

What of the truly disabled and their need for food? It’s a fair question, but the answer is not to ignore masking and social distancing. There are ways to provide for such needs, and if Meals on Wheels and delivery services aren’t doing the job, we as a society can take action to correct the problem. Considering the number of businesses who are offering delivery to your front door, the problem does not seem to be particularly acute. 

How do you balance this public safety principle with the rights of those who want to join a protest march? 

This is a different question. I would argue that the answer hinges on peoples’ expectations. In visiting Trader Joe’s, I have a reasonable expectation that the establishment will do everything it can to protect my safety and the safety of those who could, in the worst case scenario, be infected by me. I have such an expectation because Trader Joe’s has very publicly posted its rules and policies, and in the four times I have visited their stores, the rules have been followed not only by Trader Joe’s, but by every other patron I saw. We all wore masks, and you could see that people were making an effort to keep their distance from strangers. Earlier in the lockdown, the store had employees guiding and instructing shoppers. They kept count of how many shoppers were in the store at any one time, and controlled the numbers of those who could enter in order to keep the total under control. 

The dangers of being in a protest march are different, and are based on a different expectation. People who joined these gatherings understood that they were exactly that – gatherings. There is a different understanding between those who shop (we all have to get food) and those who publicly protest. Not only that, but there are different varieties of public protests. In some, the social distancing has been pretty good, but in others, people have willfully been close together. 

When I go to the market, I do not accept the level of danger that I would have to accept if I were in the middle of ten thousand people at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Both are willing choices. 

One might ask a related question: Do the protestors have the right to endanger the public health by getting so close to each other? Suppose they catch the virus and thereby raise the number of carriers in our community? They will be adding risk to those who live around them. That’s a legitimate question, and I don’t have an easy answer to it. 

But that is not the same at all as the question about going shopping. There should be places at which I have a reasonable expectation of maximal safety, and those establishments (such as supermarkets and Trader Joe’s) that advertise that they are maintaining safety should adhere strictly to those policies. 

And the right of screamers to violate those rules does not exist. 

One takeout stand closes down due to problems from the maskless 

During the same weekend that we witnessed the Trader Joe’s tantrum, Hugo’s Tacos announced its closure and blamed the action on problems from customers who refused to wear masks while ordering. Apparently, the staff were being abused by some customers who got angry when asked to put on masks. 

The problem is becoming more widespread. A sector of our society has grabbed on this issue as its symbolic battle. It’s not much of a stretch to recognize that Trump followers have been picking up on this symbol. It’s an easy fight to wage because it only involves a negative – just don’t worry about wearing that mask when you go out. 

It’s easy, that is, unless and until you run up against societal restrictions on going maskless. Shoppers in Trader Joe’s made it clear that they are sick of putting up with such reckless behavior. People are becoming more and more willing to talk back to the Trumpistas, as we have been seeing in the protest marches and now in markets. I suspect that we are seeing a turning point in public responses to right wing bullying.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)