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Fear Of Masking

Costco store facade.
photo by Mike Mozart

At first glance, it seems like a typical “Florida Man” story: When his fellow Costco shopper inquires why he is not wearing a mask as required by the chain’s social distancing policy, the young man advances menacingly, screaming, “I feel threatened. Back off!”

Video of the encounter taken by another shopper has, of course, gone viral. The young man in question, since identified as an insurance salesman named Daniel Maples, has lost his job. The shopper, who has not been named but has been described as an elderly woman, was escorted to her car by staff at the Costco outlet in the Fort Myers area, after Maples had been removed from the store and was seen leaving the parking lot.

The unmasked man’s behavior was both unacceptable and irrational; that much is clear. It may even rise to the level of a crime, which local authorities are reportedly investigating. But if we pay attention to his words – not just to the screaming and the aggression with which they were delivered, but to his actual words – it may be one of the most honest statements anyone has uttered about COVID-19.

“I feel threatened.”

You have good reason to feel threatened if you are older than Daniel Maples. Or if you have other health conditions. Or even if you are young and healthy and aware that COVID-19 can have severe consequences for your demographic too, albeit less often.

You might feel threatened if you have vulnerable family members, or if you are out of work, or if your household’s income has been curtailed, or if you have children who need to be in school but no idea when they will be able to go.

You could feel threatened just because you’ve been following the news about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in many places, or about the more than 18 million people still collecting unemployment benefits, or about accompanying setbacks to the economic reopening process that are hitting industries like restaurants and airlines particularly hard.

There are all sorts of rational reasons to feel threatened, but people who feel threatened do not always behave rationally. Perceived threats induce a “fight or flight” response. And when we fear something we cannot control – something like a virus that has upended most of our lives – we tend to redirect our response toward something we think we can control.

Something like wearing a mask in public, for instance. Or challenging someone who questions why we don’t.

The arguments proffered against mask mandates in public places where social distancing is impractical, or in private places (like a Costco) whose management insists on them for the protection of workers and patrons, are irrational. Masks don’t make people sick. When actual health and safety conditions apply, such requirements typically exempt them anyway. Masks don’t violate anybody’s constitutional rights; they are less restrictive than a quarantine, and quarantines have been in use since Colonial and post-Revolutionary America. They don’t conflict with Florida’s laws permitting residents to carry concealed firearms, which is a popular straw man in my home state. And they don’t need to obscure anyone’s identity to the extent they would conflict with anti-KKK statutes.

Also, by the way, you can use clear plastic face shields to comply with mask laws, for anyone who disputes any of the observations above.

Impatient officials and pro-mask citizens often dismiss objectors as selfish and anti-social, if not downright misanthropic. But in his own crude way, Daniel Maples may have given us a more plausible and widely applicable explanation. They feel threatened.

Our response to people who refuse to wear masks in situations that call for it might be different if we acknowledged that behaving as if COVID-19 is not a real threat, or even verbalizing that view, may be the way some people redirect their fears of the virus itself, or its impact on their lives, or both. Maybe this can motivate us to respond individually with a bit of empathy, rather than as part of the social media mob that demands relentless vengeance for any perceived transgression.

A man snapped and behaved abominably at a Costco when another person challenged him about his failure to follow rules meant to keep everyone safe. We know what he did. We don’t know what drove him to do it. How should we respond?

You can guess what actually happened. The person whose tweet went viral credited the video to another user – someone who knows enough to stay out of the social media spotlight, and keeps their tweets private. Millions saw the public version once it went up. The miscreant was quickly identified. This led his employer – a local insurance agency – to fire him, because his behavior was “in direct conflict with our company values.” The implication is that anything short of complete and public banishment is an endorsement of bad behavior that took place outside the workplace.

In an earlier time – say, 10 or 15 years ago – people would not necessarily lose their livelihoods because of an inappropriate verbal outburst. But that is what today’s social media mob demands. As a result, a family that is already experiencing who-knows-what has had its troubles amplified because of a private employer’s fear of what customers and strangers might think.

In that earlier time, Maples might have been allowed to apologize to the store, its employees, the woman he screamed at (perhaps through the store to protect her privacy) and the bystanders who witnessed the incident. Perhaps he would have been offered counseling to help with what may be some serious troubles. Perhaps his family could have been spared.

The internet mob cannot be sated. It can only be bored, at which point it will find a new target for its self-righteous wrath.

Local police, as noted, are looking into the matter. Did anyone actually go to the police to report a crime? Is there a purpose in such investigation, beyond public relations? Can an ill-mannered and inappropriate verbal outburst ever be allowed to drop, once it has acquired the mob’s attention?

Not long ago I wrote about the encounter between a man and a woman in New York’s Central Park. She, like the man at Florida’s Costco, failed to follow the rules, in that case about leashing her dog. The man approached her in a way that made her feel unsafe, which is evident in his recording of her panicky reaction: She called police to report that she felt threatened by an African American man who had a bicycle helmet. His video went viral, exposing her presumed racism to the world. Her name – which I previously left out of the story – is Amy Cooper, but she was immediately stripped of her identity to become the Central Park Karen. (This is the first and last time this blog will ever refer to someone as a Karen, or a Ken, which is exactly the sort of stereotyping of which Cooper stood publicly convicted.)

Despite her prompt and abject public apology, she too lost her job. She even, for a time, lost the dog she was walking. Fortunately, the shelter from which she had adopted him showed kindness and good sense by returning the pet to her home.

It wasn’t enough, because it is almost never enough. The Manhattan prosecutor, Cyrus Vance Jr., is up for reelection next year. He has announced plans to prosecute Amy Cooper for filing a false police report. I do not view those two facts as a likely coincidence.

But in a display of compassion, the man she called police to report – Christian Cooper, no relation to Amy – has said he will not cooperate with her prosecution. She has been sufficiently punished, in his view, and the point has been made.

Everyone feels threatened right now, in some way. Some of us have more reason to feel threatened than others, and some are better able to handle our feelings. Fear makes people do irrational things. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain some of it. With that explanation, we can approach understanding, and with understanding, we can extend some charity.

There are offenses that an apology can’t fix. But not every offense must rise to that category – no matter what the mob demands.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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