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Front-line face-offs: Mask rule sparks threats, rebellion, shouting at store workers: ‘And we can’t do anything about it’

“My fear is that these instances will escalate into a situation where someone will get hurt,” one anonymous store manager wrote after a series of confrontations with shoppers over the mask requirement.

Customers wait in line Wednesday afternoon to enter Rogers Park Fruit Market, 7401 N. Clark St., where shoppers are required to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order effective through May, merchants have posted signs and played recordings over sound systems about the face covering requirement.
Customers wait in line Wednesday afternoon to enter Rogers Park Fruit Market, 7401 N. Clark St., where shoppers are required to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order effective through May, merchants have posted signs and played recordings over sound systems about the face covering requirement.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Employees of grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores aren’t just struggling to keep shelves stocked and Illinoisans supplied during the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ve also had to deal with “a very large man” carrying a hunting knife through a DeKalb store, an “irate” man threatening to shoot a worker at a Romeoville store, and even a police officer making a “political protest” at a shop in Peoria — each of them bare-faced in rebellion against state requirements for shoppers to wear face coverings.

Those front-line workers deemed “essential” during the Illinois shutdown have been faced with dozens of such confrontations with customers refusing to follow Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s guidelines to wear masks in stores, according to Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

And with many residents itching to get back to life as they knew it — and Pritzker laying out plans Tuesday for a phased reopening of the state’s economy on a regional basis — some retailers are concerned it could get worse.

“My fear is that these instances will escalate into a situation where someone will get hurt,” an anonymous Carbondale store manager wrote in a complaint submitted to the merchants association, saying they’ve had several issues enforcing the mask guidelines.

“The public is on edge and even a passive approach has sent several customers over the edge to a point they are shouting at our teammates,” that manager wrote. The complaint was among a selection collected by the merchants association and first reported by the political news blog Capitol Fax.

Protesters gather in front of the Thompson Center for the re-open Illinois protest in front of the Thompson Center on Friday.
Protesters gather in front of the Thompson Center for the re-open Illinois protest in front of the Thompson Center on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Stores have done their part to institute the policy meant to curtail the spread of the virus, said Karr, whose association represents hundreds of retailers statewide. Under Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order effective through May, merchants have posted signs and played recordings over sound systems about the face covering requirement.

“But retailers are in no position to enforce it,” Karr said. “We can’t physically restrain anyone, so anyone can walk right by, and we can’t do anything about it.”

That should fall to local law enforcement, he said. “They have the ability to do something about it under the law.”

But that poses a problem when a police officer doesn’t follow the order himself, as reportedly happened at the Peoria store.

An officer from an unspecified department walked into a grocery store without a mask and told several customers and the store manager who challenged him that “he was making a political protest,” according to that complaint.

“The manager asked him to leave which he ultimately did, but how do you get enforcement help when the police aren’t abiding?” the store owner wrote.

A DeKalb retailer said of three or four run-ins over the mask policy, “one was somewhat disturbing” involving a “very large man, about 6-foot-6 with what I believe was a hunting knife.”

The man would not wear a mask, told employees they couldn’t “legally ask him to put one on” and asked how they’d enforce it.

A sign requesting that customers wear a face covering is posted outside of a grocery store during the coronavirus outbreak in Glenview last month.
A sign requesting that customers wear a face covering is posted outside of a grocery store during the coronavirus outbreak in Glenview last month.
Nam Y. Huh/AP file

Another DeKalb confrontation allegedly ended with an enraged customer yanking the glasses off one worker’s face and him throwing “a cantaloupe bowl in the direction of another associate.”

In Romeoville, an employee at the door asked a man to put on a face covering. He reportedly responded by threatening “to go to his car and get his gun and shoot the associate.”

It’s a threat that evokes a potential worst-case scenario such as that seen last week in Flint, Michigan, where a woman, her adult son and husband have been charged in the fatal shooting of a security guard who refused to let her daughter enter a Family Dollar store because she wasn’t wearing a face mask.

Most customers haven’t had a problem abiding by the face covering policy, Karr said.

“But it doesn’t take a huge problem. It takes one argument that turns into something more serious,” Karr said. “We want to avoid something tragic.”

Karr called on the state to issue “a clear direction that local law enforcement have the responsibility here” in enforcing the face covering requirement.

Contributing: Associated Press