Editor’s Note: Emma Andrews is a graduate student in Texas State University’s MFA Poetry program. As a native Texan, she has lived and worked in the Austin area all her life. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
“So, you discriminate against people with health issues?” the maskless man said loudly, as if he was in a packed arena and not a coffee shop. The other customers looked away, backed up or retreated into the next room. I took a deep breath, trying to keep my voice steady and calm.
“No, we don’t discriminate,” I said firmly, “but we require documentation for the said health issue or we require you to sit outside or at a table to order. We can’t have you walking around the coffee shop without a mask if you do not have documentation.”
He sneered, rolled his eyes. “If I call your manager right now, will he say the same thing?” he said, smirking, as if he highly doubted that I knew what I was talking about.
“Yes,” I said without hesitating, staring right back into his patronizing gaze. I turned back to the espresso machine to finish the latte I was working on. My co-worker and I exchanged a look that said, we don’t get paid enough for this.
The man lolled off. It seemed that all he had wanted was a scene. But my stomach still churned.
Confrontations like this one have become more frequent and more severe since March 10, 2021, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to rescind the statewide mask mandate went into effect. Having read the executive order, I am confident that legally, our business can still require customers and employees to wear masks as we have been doing for the last year. In the order, Abbott explicitly states, “Nothing in this executive order precludes businesses or other establishments from requiring employees or customers to follow additional hygiene measures, including the wearing of a face covering.” However, this is no guarantee that every patron has read and understood the executive order, or that they will respect each business’ mask policy.
The coffee shop where I work started to require our customers to wear masks when sitting inside and when ordering about a year ago. While the majority of our customers have been happy to comply with the rule, it’s amazing to me how many people still roll their eyes or make snide comments when we ask them to put on their masks. Though they comply with wearing a face-covering, a few wear their noses out, or pull up the collars of their shirts, or wear thin scarves or bandannas. Some customers wear masks into the store but pull them down and lean over the counter (into my face) to order their drinks.
Many of my fellow Texans have adopted a lax attitude towards safety precautions. This indifference, while troubling, is not explicitly aggressive. Generally, those with this mindset comply with our business’s rules. They hold their own beliefs while respecting the health and safety of others.
Their attitude differs from those who have been told, by politicians, the media, or the internet, that being required to wear a mask infringes on their rights and that Covid-19 has been blown out of proportion by liberal politicians and media. These are the people who come into the coffee shop with no intention of wearing a mask, despite our rule, and who verbally attack us when we tell them that they need a mask or that they need to wear it properly.
These customers bear a resemblance to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz when he refused to put on a mask at a press conference. Cruz stated, incorrectly, that he was following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and that having been immunized meant that he did not need to wear a mask. These justifications are simply untrue and the public animosity that Cruz showed toward the reporter who asked him nicely to put on a mask shows Texans that to be “with Cruz” means to refuse to wear a mask. The petty politicizing of a simple, affordable, and life-saving piece of cloth is putting Texans at risk and fueling public displays of hatred.
Abbott’s framing of the March 10 executive order has played into the polarity incited by those who view refusing to wear a mask as a political statement. While the order protects the rights of businesses to require masks, it has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented to mean that Texans will no longer have to wear masks anywhere for any reason.
The press release from the governor’s office is titled, “Governor Abbott Lifts Mask Mandate, Opens Texas 100 Percent.” Without reading this press release or the executive order itself, some Texans assume that this title means that they should no longer be required to wear masks in businesses and that being asked to do so is infringing on their rights. This makes mask policies difficult and treacherous to enforce, even if they are the legal right of each business.
While it’s all fine and dandy for the governor to trust people to “take the actions that they have already mastered” to keep themselves safe, it’s not fair that many of us in the service industry are getting paid minimum wage to be exposed not only to illness, but also to rage and violence that comes with trying to enforce a mask policy post March 10.
Being a young woman who often works with even younger women, I have felt extremely unsafe when confronting grown men about our mask policy, especially after experiencing and witnessing brutal verbal attacks.
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About a week after the March 10th order went into effect, I was working a closing shift with two other young women. A man came in with a mask on but pulled it down to order. My 18-year-old coworker asked him nicely to keep his mask up. He pulled the mask down farther, and she asked him again. He went off the rails: “I am a 40-year-old man, I can scratch my nose if I want to. Give me your manager’s phone number. I don’t think he’s going to be impressed with your attitude. I was going to give a tip to you and your friends, but your attitude just lost it.” And on and on until he finally left.
My co-workers and I were shaken. If we had asked him to leave, he might have gotten more agitated. If my other co-worker or I had stepped in, he might have seen it as a threat and the situation might have escalated. We had heard about violent, even fatal attacks on customer service workers who were trying to enforce mask policies. Despite all the signage on our doors and our manager’s policy to not serve those without masks, we still had to sweetly listen while this man berated a young woman less than half his age who is working to pay her way through college. We felt completely helpless.
While leaving the decision up to businesses and “individuals” sounds like a very Texan way to handle a global health crisis, it’s not protecting Texans.