CDC advises retail employees: Don't argue with anti-maskers

The Centers for Disease Control issued advice to retail employees on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic: Don’t argue with customers who refuse to wear face masks.

On Monday, the government health agency addressed employees of department stores, grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants who face angry customers refusing to wear masks, a growing problem since the CDC recommended face coverings to fight COVID-19 and more than half of U.S. states imposed mask mandates.

Leading the mask resistance are people who doubt health advice from the CDC and who claim that masks cause low blood oxygen. These beliefs have been routinely debunked by doctors — in June, Yahoo Life medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass called such arguments "unfounded by science."

Nonetheless, some frustrated by mask mandates turned to violence this summer when asked to comply at retail stores: A Sesame Place employee in Philadelphia was punched in the face, eight Trader Joe’s employees were injured when two customers in New York threw a chair into the storefront window and a Dollar Tree security guard in Michigan was fatally shot (in August, Dollar Tree Inc. reversed its mask policy to "request" that customers wear masks where local laws apply).

Some of those caught in public anti-mask meltdowns at Walmart, Target and Costco seem to fall under what social media refers to as a “Karen” (or “Ken”) — a pejorative for an entitled white person who puts their own safety ahead of others, often actively endangering others in the process.

While a growing number of individuals consider masks a violation of freedom, experts have continually presented research showing that masks not only protect others from respiratory droplets but provide protection to the wearer as well. One study suggested that wearing masks could reduce the number of COVID-19 cases by 80 percent.

Still, the new CDC advice outlines how retail workers can limit violence (threats or verbal and physical assault) when enforcing face coverings and social distancing at work. Among the dos and don’ts: “Don’t argue with a customer if they make threats or become violent” (and if necessary, retreat to a safe area such as a room that locks from the inside) and “Don’t attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies.”

Other steps are to install security systems like panic buttons, cameras or alarms and establish a response system like calling a manager, security or 911 if a situation escalates.

According to Los Angeles psychotherapist Bethany Marshall, the agency might classify mask wars as a public health crisis or associated health threat to COVID-19, as it does mental health. Its mission statement is to “protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.” and says it “conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.”

But whether the advice will somehow encourage “Karens” to break the rules needs more examination. “It’s hard to know whether de-escalating tension between the two parties helps or hurts compliance,” she says. “The guidance seems to say: Uphold the rules but don’t intervene.”

She adds: “And if it’s not the job of employees to enforce the rules, what is the second line of defense?”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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