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Updated: July 29, 2020

Mask madness: At Maine businesses, public health rules draw support but also push-back

crowd seated at bar watching soccer on TV Courtesy / Common Loon Shown in pre-COVID days, the Common Loon Public House in Orono attracts a mix of customers, many of whom come to watch televised soccer matches.
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An altercation Sunday at an Orono pub over the use of protective face masks has led to a police investigation and a social media frenzy, in perhaps another sign of Mainers’ divisive opinions about the COVID coverings.

The Common Loon Public House, at 36 Main St., requires employees to wear protective face masks, and customers must too — except when they’re sitting at a table. That policy is in accordance with public health restrictions ordered by Gov. Janet Mills, and is posted at the front door.

But on Sunday afternoon a group of four people entered the eatery without heeding the sign, pub co-owner Cory Gardner told Mainebiz. A server informed them they’d have to wear masks, which the individuals were carrying.

One of them began arguing, according to Gardner, and asked “inane” questions such as “How does the virus know if you’re at your table?” Gardner stepped in, explained the no exceptions-policy, and the group agreed to comply.

But they again resisted the requirement after they’d been seated. Another server asked the party to leave, and at that point one of the patrons allegedly began to argue more aggressively. As the group finally left, Gardner said, the woman threw the table’s menus and silverware to the floor and spit at the server.

“You read that right,” Gardner wrote in a Facebook post Monday afternoon. “She spit at him.”

And this mask-rule incident was "not even close" to the only one the Common Loon has experienced since reopening under state rules on June 1, he added.

After Sunday's confrontation, the unidentified employee went home, showered, changed his clothes and called police, according to Gardner. Orono Police Chief Josh Ewing confirmed to Mainebiz that his department received a complaint Sunday in connection with the incident, and has begun investigating.

Public reaction — and counter-reaction

By late Tuesday, Gardner’s post had drawn 1,500 reactions on Facebook, including over 300 comments, and had been shared more than 650 times.

The vast majority of responses expressed support for the employee and the pub, which Gardner launched with two partners in 2018.

entrance to two-story building
Courtesy / Common Loon
The Common Loon, at 36 Main St. in Orono, has had to deal with customers who refuse to comply with the pub's requirement to wear protective face masks.

“This is awful that your staff and your place of business had to deal with ignorant customers,” wrote one Facebook user. “Thank you for sharing what happened and standing behind your employees.”

Another post read: “So unbelievably sorry for what happened with this employee. As someone who has been working through all of this as an essential employee I completely sympathize. My coworkers and I have dealt with abuse, vile words, arguments, and even trespassing. It has taken quite a toll on us.”

But not everyone seemed understanding. Several commenters criticized the pub or defended the customer.

“The customer’s behavior was childish, but the pub's attitude is just as bad if not worse. Forcing your employees to wear a mask for an entire shift is endangering their lives more than this virus ever will,” read a post. “You folks at the pub should be ashamed of yourselves!”

Maine opposition to face masks also played out recently on another social media platform. Earlier this month, an analysis of 150,000 geotagged Twitter posts nationwide ranked the state as the No. 5 hotspot for anti-mask tweeting.

The study, by emergency preparedness website Survival at Home, looked at hashtags such as “#nomasks" and "#burnyourmask," which residents of Maine used more than those of any state but Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Idaho. Residents of other states in the Northeast didn’t even come close.

Anti-mask sentiment may also be on display at other Maine businesses. In June, just days after outdoor bars were allowed to resume operation, customers of several drinking establishments in Portland openly flouted requirements for social distancing and mask wearing, prompting a police crackdown.

Similar incidents recently inspired a business-led ad campaign asking customers to be courteous toward employees and to comply with mask requirements and other public health measures.

In addition, a statewide survey of 3,000 Mainers found that while most of them weighed factors such as the use of masks in deciding whether to patronize a business, residents aren't always keen on having to comply themselves. In fact, 21% of the respondents agreed with the statement “If they force me to wear a mask I will go somewhere else.”

But another survey, conducted earlier this month by Mainebiz, found that over 200 businesspeople and others responding favored the state's mask requirement by a 4-to-1 ratio.  

'Ridiculous' behavior

Back at the Common Loon, Gardner called Sunday’s incident “shaking,” and said his employees handled the situation appropriately. He described his support of their response as “solid.” 

“They’re enabled to make decisions like this,” he said. “We’ve always said, ‘We’ll have your back.’ To ask employees to put up with this type of behavior is ridiculous.”

The pub is working with police to identify the unruly patron and to help if criminal charges are pressed. And Gardner said the Common Loon will continue to enforce the mask requirement.

“We’re going to just keep going as we have been,” he said.

In his Facebook post, Gardner wrote, "We’re a small business struggling to survive in an unprecedented global health and economic emergency, but we’re not willing to compromise the well-being of our customers, staff and community in order to make a buck."

Ninety-five percent of his customers comply with the mask requirement, he added, and expressed gratitude for their cooperation as well as for the public response. On Tuesday, several Facebook users said they’ve never visited the Common Loon but now plan to.

“We never expected any of this,” Gardner told Mainebiz. “To receive this outpouring of support, for simply following the rules and being spit on, is kind of bizarre.”

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July 31, 2020

Respect is what's lacking with people who refuse to follow any business's policies but want to be served, and that's not just in this particular time. If you want to be invited into a business - which is private property, after all, and your money doesn't change that fact - Follow their policies. Since this also happens to be a state mandate for the protection of the very people you expect to serve you, either follow it or stay home.

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