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In Michigan, mandatory masks a flash point for violence amid coronavirus

LANSING — Flint police found Calvin Munerlyn lying on the floor of Family Dollar on Friday, unconscious and bleeding from the head after telling a shopper to wear a mask.

The security guard would later die from the gunshot, and prosecutors say he’s the latest victim of a growing threat amid the pandemic: angry customers taking out frustrations about Michigan’s coronavirus rules on retail staffers.

In northern Oakland County, Holly police say they arrested a man Monday who was caught on security cameras wiping his nose on the shirt of a Dollar Tree employee who told him he must wear a mask. Macomb County prosecutors have charged a St. Clair Shores woman on allegations she assaulted a store employee who asked her to wear a mask, and spat at police officers who responded to the scene.

Six weeks into a state lockdown, “people are feeling the cabin fever, and I think they’re going to take it out in this way if we keep going,” said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, who on Monday filed criminal charges against three family members accused in the Flint shooting.

Sharmel Teague is accused of yelling at Munerlyn and spitting at him after he told her she needed to wear a mask and instructed a Family Dollar cashier not to serve her without one. Prosecutors say shortly after she left, her husband, Larry Teague, and son, Ramonyea Bishop, returned to the store, and Bishop shot Munerlyn in the back of the head.

Public health officials across the country continue to recommend residents wear masks in public to prevent the spread of the virus. Leyton said he thinks the protests at the Michigan Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order and social media posts promoting defiance appear to be “ratcheting up these hostile feelings” amid a vocal minority.

That tension can come to a head in grocery stores and other stores, where “you have the one-on-one contact between the person who is responsible for enforcing it, and the person who doesn’t want to abide by it,” Leyton said.  “People swell out their chest and say, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.’ The unintended consequence is some fool pulls a gun and fires and takes away a father of nine kids. It’s just tragic.”

Whitmer on April 26 began requiring residents who are physically able to wear masks in enclosed spaces like grocery stores. But her executive order exempts violators from criminal penalty, leaving stores to decide whether or how to enforce the customer policy themselves. 

That puts retailers in a “horrendous position” said Meegan Holland of the Michigan Retailers Association business group, which is urging Whitmer to reconsider her order. 

“Our preference would be to eliminate the requirement to wear masks,” she said. “We think a lot of customers and employees will wear them anyway to feel comfortable and safe, but it’s just impossible to enforce this, especially the way it’s set up right now.”

Some stores already had their own mask policies in place before Whitmer’s order. Others have gone further since, including Menards home improvement store, which now prohibits any children younger than 16 in its stores. 

That’s understandable because “kids touch everything,” Holland said. “Right now, retailers are trying to set up their stores in ways that will minimize touching.”

Holland is coaching retailers on how to handle customer confrontations.

“The hope is that you can defuse the situation and just say, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m requiring masks as a way to protect my employees and my customers, but I’d be happy to serve you curbside,’” she said. “So you’re not refusing to serve them, but you’re being firm about why it’s so important to wear a mask.”

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said Tuesday the administration is not currently considering changes to the mask requirement but “will continue to review all our policies for safety and effectiveness.”

In neighboring Ohio, Gov Mike DeWine recently reversed himself and backed off a mandatory mask policy for the public. 

“It became clear to me that that was just a bridge too far,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday on ABC News. “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”

DeWine continues to encourage the use of masks, however, and he urged customers to wear them in grocery stores to protect “the folks who are stocking shelves.”

In Stillwater, Oklahoma, city officials on Friday enacted a mandatory mask policy but rescinded it later that same day, saying store employees had been “threatened with physical violence” — including one firearm threat — “and showered with verbal abuse.”

Whitmer has called face coverings an important part of the state’s attempt to slow the spread of the virus, which as of Tuesday had killed 4,179 people. The state has confirmed 44,397 since March 10.

Whitmer on Monday offered public condolences to the family of the Flint security guard, Munerlyn, urged Michigan residents to “keep their wits about them” and praised essential workers who remain on the job while other businesses remain closed.

“It is incredible, the people that continue to show up to work to protect everyone else, and it is incredibly sad that in this crisis that this life was lost,” the governor said. 

“We are mindful of how important it is that people continue to keep a level head, that we do the right things protecting ourselves and protecting others.It’s really important that as people go into stores, they think about all the people that are in there that are putting their lives on the line to keep serving us.” 

The Flint shooting was at least the second retail-related crime Leyton’s office is prosecuting. In March, he charged a 26-year-old Mt. Morris man with multiple felonies for allegedly claiming to have COVID-19 and intentionally touching multiple shopping carts inside a Kroger grocery store. 

At the same time, Leyton said his office has been flooded with complaints from residents reporting possible violations of Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, employees who claim they’ve been ordered to come back to work early and businesses who allege their competition is not complying. 

“I have never been busier than I have been since this whole thing started up,” he said.

Leyton defended Whitmer’s executive orders, saying they are “for the good of the health of the entire state” and that compliance now could allow the governor to relax rules sooner. 

The Macomb Daily on Tuesday first reported on criminal charges against 33-year-old Kristin Hoff, a former Roseville mayor candidate who is accused of attacking a worker at Nino Salvaggio’s international grocery store who had asked her to leave because she was not wearing a mask. 

Huff then attacked and spat on police officers who were called to the store, according to the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office. She’s accused of assault and battery, assaulting/resisting/obstructing police and refusing to be fingerprinted.

“During this unprecedented time, we know tensions are running high. Patience and understanding are greatly encouraged as we all try our best to acclimate to the new and often-changing expectations,” Acting Prosecutor Jean Cloud said in a statement. 

“However, the repeated inappropriate behavior of this suspect cannot be tolerated. This suspect’s repeated actions clearly demonstrated a willful disregard of the safety of those around her.”

St. Clair Shores resident Ed Cardenas witnessed the arrest — but not the initial assault — as he approached the store, which he said has a sign at the entrance informing customers that they needed a mask to enter.

“It was disappointing to see,” he said. “She let her emotions get the best of her in unfortunately attacking an employee who was just doing her job, and then raised it to the next level by assaulting a police officer and spitting in their face while they were just trying to do their job. 

“I thought it was uncalled for. There are other stores to shop at.”

In the Village of Holly, police said Tuesday they’ve made an arrest after seeking public health to identify a man caught on camera accosting a Dollar Tree store employee on Saturday. But they did not offer additional details or respond to an inquiry from Bridge Magazine.

Authorities said Monday the store clerk had told the man, who was not wearing a mask, that all customers must wear face coverings inside the store, as stated at signs posted on the entry doors. The man proceeded to walk over and wipe his nose and face on her shirt. 

He allegedly explained himself to the worker: “Here, I will use this as a mask.”  

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said he thinks those cases remain “outliers.”

“Probably the most common violation of the emergency order is the congregation of crowds who are meeting without social distancing,” he said. 

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature last week rejected Whitmer’s request to extend an emergency declaration, but Whitmer responded by issuing new declarations she says will allow her to continue issuing and revising executive orders during the pandemic. 

“Regardless of what you may have heard,” Whitmer’s stay-at-home and business closure orders “are valid and enforceable,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said Tuesday in a new memo to local police

That guidance will be a big help for local law enforcement officials who may have been uncertain given the ongoing legal debate in Lansing, according to Stevenson. 

But he noted there are no penalties for violating the mandatory mask requirement, “so there’s really nothing police departments can do about that particular one.”


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