Local, state and federal governments around the country are struggling with how best to protect their citizens while balancing public health with economic needs of businesses.
For many areas, businesses are reopening gradually with employees and patrons asked to wear face masks to mitigate the spread of the viral pathogen at the root of the global pandemic.
Apparently that was a bridge too far for some of the residents of Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Just hours after Mayor Will Joyce announced businesses would reopen and the business owners could ask patrons to wear masks, employees began to report receiving abuse, threats and harassment. The city received the same kind of public feedback.
City Manager Norman McNickle—a hired employee—said in a statement:
"In the short time beginning on May 1, 2020, that face coverings have been required for entry into stores/restaurants, store employees have been threatened with physical violence and showered with verbal abuse."
"In addition, there has been one threat of violence using a firearm. This has occurred in three short hours and in the face of clear medical evidence that face coverings helps contain the spread of COVID-19."
Mayor Joyce—an elected official—addressed the issue on Twitter.
It’s May 1, Stillwater, and we’ve entered the first phase of rolling back the drastic measures necessary to slow th… https://t.co/GI8BIfLxGD— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376499.0
As I’ve noted before, I am still concerned that we’re not truly on the downhill side of this crisis. But Stillwater… https://t.co/nu9ukes6Vu— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376499.0
Because there are so many different standards and recommendations from the Federal and state governments, and becau… https://t.co/uAdsroiHqL— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376500.0
This approach is not perfect either—there are so many differing circumstances even among similar businesses. In spe… https://t.co/R8tx0BPGAs— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376501.0
Joyce then addressed the issue of face coverings...
But we had a bit of false start today on face coverings. Masks are an easy and effective way to slow the spread and… https://t.co/EsldF9aPKr— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376502.0
Rather than make a blanket rule for everyone, we decided to require businesses to tell their patrons to wear them w… https://t.co/3aAlAfiQz7— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376502.0
I knew there would be some objections, but I did not expect physical confrontations with employees and threatening… https://t.co/hpIsz4dePZ— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376503.0
...including addressing the bullies.
I am not the kind of person who backs down from bullies, but I also will not send someone else to fight the battle… https://t.co/T74ZGhJb9z— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376503.0
Masks are currently required for employees in most public-facing businesses, and strongly recommended for everyone… https://t.co/cNChevCYSW— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376503.0
To the people who resort to threats and intimidation when asked to take a simple step to protect your community: sh… https://t.co/sKt7MUbSib— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376504.0
Joyce stressed the importance of finding common ground.
We must find common ground and work together to deal with the circumstances our society is facing. Whether or not w… https://t.co/limGTPd6rG— Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater (@Mayor Will Joyce #StayHomeStillwater)1588376504.0
Two months prior, Mayor Joyce shared how he shaved his beard in solidarity with the city's first responders.
Police, fire and rescue workers were asked to shave their facial hair so they masks would fit properly.
After the mask requirement was rolled back, Joyce shared some of the threats the city received.
While those against the mask requirement threatened the city, business owners and employees, those in favor of masks called for the city to use force against protestors.
The city's official statement cleared up some of the protestors misconceptions about their rights.
"Many of those with objections cite the mistaken belief the requirement is unconstitutional, and under their theory, one cannot be forced to wear a mask. No law or court supports this view. In fact, a recent Federal lawsuit against Guthrie's face covering order was fully dismissed by the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma."
"It is further distressing that these people, while exercising their believed rights, put others at risk. As mentioned, there is clear medical evidence the face coverings prevent COVID-19 spread; they are recommended by both the CDC and the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The wearing of face coverings is little inconvenience to protect both the wearer and anyone with whom they have contact. And, an unprotected person who contracts the virus can infect their own loved ones and others."
They pointed out that private businesses also have rights regarding their personal safety and the safety of their employees.
"It is further well settled that a business is private property to which people do not have unfettered right of entry. Just as a business has the right to enforce 'No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service,' the business can require a face covering as a condition to entry."
Those who opposed the face covering requirement were characterized as self-absorbed.
"The City of Stillwater has attempted to keep people safe by the simple requirement to wear a face covering to protect others. It is unfortunate and distressing that those who refuse and threaten violence are so self-absorbed as to not follow what is a simple show of respect and kindness to others."
"In that effort to insure the safety of others, we now have to weigh the safety of store owners and employees to threats of violence. We cannot, in clear conscience, put our local business community in harm's way, nor can the police be everywhere. Accordingly, we will now be asking our local stores and business to encourage, but not require, patrons to cover their faces. Of course, each business can choose to adopt a more stringent approach, and we ask everyone to respect and abide by such decisions."
They concluded by stating once again the point of face masks.
"Wearing a face covering is an easy way to support the health of your community and speed our recovery from this pandemic. Please do so."
The book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond is available here.