MELBOURNE, Fla. – In March, as Florida rolled back its COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, Karen and Friends Beads reopened in Melbourne, and Mendy White posted a note on the door saying masks were required inside her store. A man she asked to wear one flashed a gun at her before he and his wife left the store in anger.
Since first reported by Florida Today and then USA TODAY, calls both offering money and making threats have poured into the shop. White, who initially said she didn’t want her mask policy to drag politics into her business, found herself thrust more publicly into controversy.
Facial masks have become a political touchstone since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in the U.S.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that widespread face coverings will help halt the spread of the coronavirus, people who don’t want to wear them because they find them uncomfortable, doubt their effectiveness or consider the requirement an affront to their rights have sometimes taken their anger out on the workers tasked with enforcing such policies. News reports detail verbal and physical abuse of employees as well as brawls between customers themselves.
When COVID-19 cases spiked in the U.S. in July, retailers such as Walmart, Publix and Target as well as small businesses began requiring customers and employees to wear facial coverings inside their stores.
Some, however, have hesitated to enforce those restrictions out of fear for the safety of their employees. Walmart, Lowe's, Walgreens and many others have told employees not to prevent maskless customers from entering stores.
White has an elderly mother at home with a weak immune system and therefore good reason to want to protect herself from the virus. She didn’t expect her store’s policy to invite such outrage and threats.
White said about 70% of callers were supportive, but 30% have made graphic rape and death threats, called her profane names, or just argued, she said.
“I’ve been told about three times that the gun should’ve been pulled on me,” White said Friday.
One man told her he was part of an “anti-masker group” and said he and 20 to 30 people planned to protest in front of the shop.
“He didn't cuss at me at least, and I didn't cuss at him, which is shocking,” White said. “I do know how to curb it. And he, he said, ‘Look, you know, be on the lookout for us because we're going to put you out of business.’”
White’s friend Jennifer Vincent saw a Facebook post from White to explain the situation to followers. Vincent said she was “incensed to the point of tears” and offered to stay with White in the shop Saturday so she’d be safe if the protesters did show up.
“I’m a disabled veteran, I don’t have much to do with my day other than sit around and do housewife stuff,” Vincent said. “So I warned everybody, ‘Mom might be in trouble. Don’t know if someone’s going to be nuts, but I’m going to go down there and I’m going to just be with my friend.’”
Protesters never showed up.
White saw other gestures of support from around the country after the article was published. One man from Hawaii called and purchased a $50 gift card. When White asked him where he wanted her to mail it, he told her to give it to the next person who walked into the store.
That happened to be Anne Geerligs, who works at the Flop Shop, a downtown Melbourne sandal shop. She knew a man had said he’d protest outside the store, but she hadn’t heard about the other threats. Anyone in the downtown business community would support her, she said.
“I’d go sit down there every day if it meant it would help her," Geerligs said.
Geerligs said she hadn’t asked people to wear masks in her store, but that didn’t stop her from getting trouble from customers. People have seen her wearing a mask and told her she didn’t need to, and one man angrily left the shop over it.
“People need to stay in their own lane,” she said. “I don't want to offend anyone over it, but these people need to stop bullying small businesses because they're not thinking the same way they are.”
The outpouring of support prompted White to post a video on the store’s Facebook page asking people to stop trying to send her money. One man had offered the store $10,000, which she turned down.
She said people should spend their money within their communities at local businesses that might not survive the pandemic, not at a store that happened to be featured in a national news story.
“If you would like to buy a good or service from me, please pay me, but otherwise please stop sending me money,” she said. “We’re going to make it, and I appreciate you and I love you, and thank you.”
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: COVID-19 masks: Fla. bead shop's policy draws death threats, donations