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The Conundrum Facing Retailers with the Divisive Issue of Mask Wearing

Retailers are ecstatic to be opening their doors again, but some could experience trouble if they fail to consider security as they do, or if they allow cost-cutting to translate into greater opportunities for thieves. There is also concern that safety and security could clash, as individuals use the anonymity provided by face coverings to perpetrate crimes.

A majority of the American public—but not all— has warmed to the idea of wearing face masks, pushed by a more complete understanding of COVID-19 disease transmission. New research show that infections would plummet if face coverings were common, with one model suggesting that if 80 percent of a closed population were to don masks, then COVID-19 infection rates would drop to about one twelfth the number of infections compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks (Universal Masking is Urgent in the COVID-19 Pandemic: SEIR and Agent Based Models, Empirical Validation, Policy Recommendations, April 21, 2020).

Criminal Behavior

However, the criminal element could use the normalization of face coverings to commit crimes, warn some experts, including Peter Power, a leading British crisis management specialist, in a radio interview with the BBC. “It can be a security threat,” he warned. “Because if anybody [decided to engage] in some kind of deviant behavior there is an opportunity now, by carrying out what would appear to be a common sense, health-preserving activity…[to] remove from you the chances of being identified as the person you are.” That is particularly worrisome because masks counter traditional security methods for validating people’s identity, identifying suspects, or identifying individuals to permit building entry. “That’s a huge challenge,” Power said. “That’s the one that concerns me.”

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Power noted that increased anonymity could catalyze criminal behavior. “There is a lot of research saying people are more tempted to act in deviant ways,” he said. “So even innocent people may be tempted to do things that they would never otherwise do, and it does give a cover for those who are intent on doing harm.”

Bryanna Fox, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and criminology professor at the University of South Florida, agrees with Power that a side effect of the widespread wearing of masks will be more deviant behavior in society. “People who wear masks feel more enabled and empowered to do things that they normally wouldn’t have done if their face was seen in public,” she said in an interview with WTOP News.

Masks encourage anonymity, which, in turn, gives wearers immunity from public identification, notes a study that looked at the linkage between masks and aberrant behaviors (“Masks, Criminality, and Implications for Security in Nigeria,” Journal of Applied Security Research, 2011). It concludes “that unbridled usage of masks threatens security and increases the propensities for aberrant acts of criminal consequences.”

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There is already evidence that some criminals are using masks as cover to target retailers. Santa Ana, California, is among many cities in the US reporting a recent surge in armed robberies—up 50 percent since stores began requiring customers to wear masks. “We’re seeing more and more suspects wearing the mask and using that to their benefit,” said a Santa Ana police officer.

The owner of a gas station that was recently robbed suggested that masks create a perfect storm for robberies of convenience-type stores. “We’re sitting here not knowing who’s going to walk through that door. It’s horrible,” the store’s owner told CBS Los Angeles. “I mean, I know we have to take certain measures because of what’s happening with COVID-19, but it’s the perfect script or manual for a robber—the mask, the sunshade, and a hoodie.”

Masks also curtail the effectiveness of security technology. Although some makers of facial recognition technologies are claiming to have products that can be used effectively with people wearing masks, it’s certain that facial recognition algorithms are more accurate when people are not wearing masks. Additionally, face coverings make video surveillance less useful for identifying suspects—thus reducing its deterrence value.

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The Politicization of Masks Wearing

There has also been a measure of politicization of mask wearing, which raises the likelihood of people resisting store guidelines that ask or require customers to wear masks. Compounding the potential for problems is America’s patchwork of conflicting guidance on wearing masks and uneven description of the efficacy of masks by officials. How incidents of conflict are managed in stores can have enormous consequences.

Several crime experts said there has been a growing trend of violence directed at employees of businesses trying to enforce social distancing measures and rules requiring face coverings, and there are numerous accounts in May to support it.

  • At a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, a security officer was fatally shot following an argument with several family members over the store’s face covering requirement. Four members of the family were subsequently charged for their role in the officer’s death.
  • In an Oklahoma City McDonald’s, a woman ignored rules that had closed off a dining area and got into a physical confrontation with an employee after being asked to leave. The woman left the restaurant but returned with a handgun and shot one worker in the arm. Two other employees were hurt by flying debris.
  • While helping to remove two customers who refused to wear masks, an employee at a Target in Van Nuys, California, sustained a broken arm.
  • A cashier at convenience store in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, was punched three times in the face after she refused to make a sale to a man refusing to wear a mask.

Stores are being forced to walk a fine line between the risk of violence to store staff on one hand and, on the other, promoting public and employee health and adhering to health guidelines. Some stores, like CVS, are telling its employees to remind shoppers of mask rules in jurisdictions that have mandated facial coverings but to permit them to enter if they refuse to wear a mask to avoid a potentially violent confrontation.

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