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The Grocery Stories: Unmasking the unmasked

There it is: the two words — medical condition — that are the bullet in this game of Russian Roulette with the health and lives of the rest of us.

Masked and unmasked shoppers leave Walmart in North Adams in May.Gillian Jones/Associated Press

My nose and mouth are covered. My hands are tied.

That’s what it’s like when someone refuses to wear a mask in the middle of a hectic grocery store, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which had killed more than 167,000 Americans as of Friday.

“Is it a store requirement to wear masks?” my customer asks while I ring up her order on the register.

“Not only is it a store requirement, it’s a state requirement,” I say, referring to the 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, which require people to wear masks when out in public places.


“That man over there isn’t wearing a mask,” she says, motioning in the direction of someone standing on another line. “Your manager walked by him four times and didn’t say a word. There was no conversation.” Her face tightens; her stare remains fixed as if watching a hostage situation.

He is eight lines away, standing inches behind the person ahead of him.

I understand that someone is asking me to do something.

This becomes one of the now too common moments that each of us working in grocery stores during the pandemic has come to dread: confrontations with customers that span from mild to ugly to violent.

My feet advance, as if I were in an airport on a moving walkway. Everything around me seems to still. I walk over to the unmasked man. “Excuse me, sir, I need to ask you to put on a mask. It’s a store requirement.”

“I already talked to your manager,” he says, smirking. “I have a medical condition.”

There it is: the two words — medical condition — that are the bullet in this game of Russian Roulette with the health and lives of the rest of us.


From the smirk on his face and the “nyah-nyah” way he says it, I believe he is lying.

My thought is as simple as scanning a box of stone-ground crackers: Is it worth losing my job and medical benefits to say something more? Because that is what will happen: I will lose my job for standing up for myself, my front-line colleagues, and our customers, 99 percent of whom are complying, because someone might call corporate and complain or post something negative on social media. How does he get to do that?

When I am back at the register, my colleague who is bagging my customer’s order says, “I saw the smirk on his face. What did he say?”

When I explain, the silence between our side of the register and the customer behind the plexiglass solidifies.

A few minutes later, my manager is nearby. My colleague calls out to him, “What’s with the guy not wearing a mask?”

He repeats the man’s words. He says that in these situations, management was instructed to let unmasked people shop.

Referring to a colleague who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and severe asthma, I say, “She wears a mask eight hours a day.”

He says, “We don’t compare people.”

If this were a play, the stage notes would read: Sound of slamming door.

Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, tell us that wearing a mask significantly contributes to limiting the spread of COVID-19. Recent polling indicates most of the country supports wearing masks.


And still, reports of people making false claims about medical conditions went viral on social media. A small cadre of people — the unmaskers — have presented phony identification cards purporting medical exemptions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A few days ago, my friend sent me a news report about a woman in a California supermarket who claimed to be from the Freedom to Breathe Agency and threatened an employee with legal action for telling people to wear masks.

“Aside from young children and patients who have altered consciousness, there are really no conditions that present an absolute contraindication to masking,” Dr. John O’Horo, a critical care specialist in pulmonology and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in an e-mail, referring to the “highly breathable cloth masks” the public — even people with respiratory issues — are being asked to wear.

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s routinely seeing — and still do — signs on the door of different businesses saying, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” The culture that embraced that credo to keep the counterculture out of stores and restaurants — not to mention for health and hygiene purposes — is not us now. Ironically, our counterculture — the unmaskers — is not being kept out.

“That this has been made a very political issue is unfortunate,” said Dr. Peter Zazzali, a critical care pulmonology intensivist at Clara Maass Medical Center in New Jersey. “The unfortunate part is that it’s a real issue. It’s a real virus, and it has become deadly.”


So what will it take for people like the guy on line in my store to care about me and my colleagues, who make their purchases possible, and to care about the shoppers they pass while putting cereal and bread into the cart?

Where does the buck stop?

In the language of executive orders from states requiring masks, medical conditions are usually outlined broadly. It is not enough. The language — also followed by many businesses to set their masking requirements — needs a swift kick of accountability so that people trying to cloak themselves in a law designed to shield and support human beings with disabilities doesn’t leave us all vulnerable. Fix it.

And for businesses: You are not invertebrates. I’d bet the ranch that the one person potentially calling to complain would be out-dialed by the 100 people backing you up because you had their backs.

If you don’t want to shop with a mask on, choose an alternative: Ask someone to shop for you. Shop online. Use pickup and delivery. Please.

The buck cannot stop with me. It cannot stop with the essential workers of any business. It cannot stop with store managers. We are just trying to go to work, do our jobs — and stay alive.

Mary Ann D'Urso’s column appears regularly in the Globe.