I Asked A Stranger In A Store In Florida To Wear A Mask. It Didn’t Go Well.

I got into a fight with a woman at a store. Fighting with strangers in public isn’t typically in my wheelhouse. Historically, I’m quite nonconfrontational. I’m the person who apologizes when someone bumps into me or just shrugs when someone cuts me in line. But last week, I reached my limit: I had the audacity to ask a stranger to wear a mask. 

I wasn’t planning on going inside the store. As a resident of Florida, where COVID-19 is exploding and completely out of control, every day I wake up to see what fresh new hell awaits me. I watch in horror as our COVID-19 cases continue to spike to record highs, leading to hospitals reaching capacity. I watch as the number of children who have contracted the virus continues to increase and we see more severe illness and hospitalizations in this demographic than ever before. And I watch as Gov. Ron DeSantis does everything in his power to prevent rational and frightened Floridians from practicing common-sense public safety measures, while promoting misinformation and conspiracy theories to fuel a dangerous virus.

All of this led me to decide to avoid indoor public settings. Therefore, I was incredibly upset when I received the wrong infant formula during a recent curbside run to the store and, for some reason I will never understand, they did not allow curbside returns or exchanges. However, the associate who gave me this bad news assured me that the store was strictly enforcing its new mask mandate. So I put on my N95 mask and a brave face beneath it and I stepped through those once-inviting sliding glass doors. 

While I shouldn’t have been surprised, it’s always a shock to see maskless people casually walking around like we’re not in the middle of a dangerous global pandemic. Luckily for me, the customer service area was mostly empty.

As I waited my turn, I glanced around the store and took in the scene ― a handful of masked shoppers, hordes of maskless mothers with children in tow, and nonchalant employees unwilling to enforce the store’s mask policy.

What was initially skittish, anxious energy coursing through my body began to transform into pure rage. I was angry. I was angry at everyone ignoring the store’s mask policy. I was angry at those same people for putting the employees and other shoppers at risk. I was angry at the employees for not enforcing the mask policy. I was angry at every eligible person who chooses not to get vaccinated or to wear masks in order to protect those more vulnerable than themselves.

And then an unmasked woman moved toward the line behind me.

I glanced around the store and took in the scene ― a handful of masked shoppers, hordes of maskless mothers with children in tow, and nonchalant employees unwilling to enforce the store’s mask policy. What was initially skittish, anxious energy coursing through my body began to transform into pure rage.

I stood there and carefully watched her approach ― a mix of irritation and fear radiating through me. Like many nonconfrontational people, I stayed quiet and kept backing away from her in an attempt to maintain distance while avoiding conflict. But with every step I took, the woman inched closer. Finally, I spoke up.

“Excuse me. I’m so sorry to ask this, but do you mind either putting on a mask or backing up a bit?” I asked as courteously as I could. “I’m just very nervous about COVID, and you’re a little close for comfort.”  

I always try to be polite when I ask someone to wear a mask. Thanks to Florida’s incompetent leadership, I understand people aren’t required to wear them, but I had hoped that being kind, expressing my fear of catching and transmitting the virus to my unvaccinated children and just asking nicely ― not demanding ― would elicit some sort of empathy and understanding.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead, the woman immediately got defensive and raised her voice for anyone and everyone to hear.

“How dare you!” she bellowed. “You can’t start yelling at me out of nowhere when I’m not right next to you.” 

I calmly responded that the store has a mask mandate that she is not following, and that I’d appreciate her either wearing one for my safety or moving away. This seemed to anger her even more. 

Just then, it was my turn to approach the customer service counter. I turned my attention away from the maskless woman to returning my formula, but she was not finished with me. She continued to complain about me and tell everyone within earshot that I “randomly attacked her for no reason.”

And then it happened: 18 months of suppressed frustration, depression and rage at the ignorance and selfishness society has shown throughout this pandemic bubbled to the surface … and I snapped.

I snapped for my toddler who has missed a year of school, birthday parties, play dates and experiences. I snapped for my infant, whose first glimpse of this world was his mother in a mask. I snapped for my husband, who has endured my anxiety and fear but continues to be supportive and understanding. I snapped for my father, who, as a doctor, risks his life every time he treats his patients. I snapped for the nearly 700,000 people whose deaths could have been prevented. I snapped for their families who are mourning their loved ones while watching the public insult their memory by continuing to ignore health guidelines. And I snapped for myself ― for lonely prenatal visits, lost time, lost friends, missed holidays and other life experiences.

For the first time in my life, I confronted a stranger in public and called out her entitlement. She may claim she has her “God-given right” to not wear a mask, but what about my right to protect myself and exchange food for my child without the fear of falling ill? How dare this woman and every other anti-masker think they have the “right” to ignore public health guidelines that are meant to keep our neighbors safe. When did society become so individualistic and self-centered that wearing a piece of cloth that could save lives became such a contentious subject?

What breaks my heart the most is that this pandemic could be under control by now. People don’t have to be getting sick. People don’t have to be dying. We were given the tools to fight this virus, but so many people simply don’t care. 

And so, I snapped. 

I looked that woman in the eye and let her know my true feelings. I told her she was selfish. I called her irresponsible. I called her a threat and an endangerment to my unvaccinated children. I also called her weak ― because if I could endure hours of labor in an N95 mask with a surgical mask on top, then she could wear a mask for 20 minutes while shopping. 

What breaks my heart the most is that this pandemic could be under control by now. People don’t have to be getting sick. People don’t have to be dying. We were given the tools to fight this virus, but so many people simply don’t care.

I’m not sure what type of reaction I really expected. It would have been nice if, by some miracle, I reached the depths of her humanity and she apologized or put on a mask. I would have been happy if the masked man behind her showed some solidarity, as opposed to the silent amusement I could see twinkling in his eyes. It would have also been nice for the customer service associate to ask the woman to comply with the store’s mask policy ― but none of that happened.

Nothing happened. It was like my momentary lack of composure never occurred. The woman looked incredibly pissed off, but to my surprise ― and relief ― she didn’t say more. Maybe she didn’t expect I would lose it the way I did. Maybe she didn’t know how to respond to my meltdown. I received a few curious glances from other shoppers, but I knew the only thing that would likely come out of this would be me being the butt of a few jokes. I took a deep breath, completed my return and walked out of the store while feeling the piercing gaze and anger of that woman on my back.

Was this my proudest moment? Probably not. However, I don’t regret what happened because, at the end of the day, I am proud that I not only stood up for myself but for those more vulnerable than me.

I wish I could say the same for others around me, for my governor, and for others in positions of power. I want everyone to care about the well-being of their neighbors ― the people who live, work, shop and attend school in the same places we do.

Of course I am tired of isolating and wearing a mask. Of course I want this pandemic to end so we can all return to living without fear of catching and spreading a virus, but that will never happen if we keep moving in this direction.

I want to believe we can beat this and that the last 18 months will be a dark blip in history, but we must come together now. We need to temporarily sacrifice our comfort and utilize the weapons in our arsenal like vaccines, masks and social distancing so we don’t have to be in this same place later ― and so people stop dying. We need to treat each other with respect and toss aside our political differences. Stop hiding behind the concept of rights and freedoms to do whatever you want, and instead, focus on how the simple act of wearing a mask could have a significant, life-saving impact on another. 

It’s been almost a week since my encounter with this woman, but my emotions are still very raw. I don’t know if my outburst changed her mind or anyone else’s that day, but I just couldn’t stay silent any longer. I am exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed and scared ― and I know I’m not alone. I have a hunch that there are others out there who feel the same. I’m not claiming to know more than anyone else. I’m just a mom trying to return some formula on an ordinary afternoon. But I do know this: We all need to do better, or else we’re not going to get out of this without more unnecessary suffering. In the meantime, I’m staying home.

Erica Greenfield is a communications professional who resides in Florida. In her spare time, she enjoys writing for various blogs and publications.

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