Be Ready for Face Mask Discrimination

Before the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2)/COVID-19 lockdowns, my wife and I were devout Trader Joe’s shoppers. But we lost faith during the months when long lines of people waited to be blessed entrance into the small stores. Our attention turned to humbler grocery cathedrals Food4Less, Grocery Outlet, and Smart & Final, which welcomed our presence and provided as good (and often better) sustenance for considerably lower cost. But with California slowly reopening, we occasionally return to Trader Joe’s—more to reminisce while grabbing a couple bananas.

We also go there for rolls of quarters, as I did this morning. The previous two trips, when getting cash back and casually telling the cashier about my plans, I was told: “We no longer give out quarters”. But when I traipsed over to the service desk, the gracious employees willingly exchanged a Twenty for two rolls. Last time, the gentleman even opened their new cash storage safe—installed sometime during last year’s coin shortage and after the nearby Wells Fargo branch closed, and never reopened, because of the pandemic.

Something changed today.

Following the same routine of getting cash-back with my purchase, I walked up to the service desk, politely lay down one Andrew Jackson, and cheerfully asked for two rolls. The woman curtly said that TJ’s no longer exchanges quarters. “Our safe is too small”, she said. But that’s a lie, and I wondered why she made such an excuse. I learned from the previous cash-for-coins trade that the new safe was there to ensure that the grocery would have adequate change—particularly with Wells Fargo closed for so long. Initially, I accepted a new policy as legitimate enough. But, then, while walking home and reflecting on my interaction with the women, another reason made more sense—in context of offish behavior by both employees.

On May 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its face-mask guidance. The COVID-19 vaccinated don’t need to wear them “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance”. In response, Trader Joe’s relaxed its mask policy, which I decided to experience today. For the first time in more than a year, I walked into a public place with my mask pulled down below my chin. What a relief it was to breathe and to feel unmuzzled. Funny thing: In walking through the store and passing everyone there, I was the only person not wearing a properly fitted face covering.

I will let you speculate what all those mask-wearers say about the type of person (insert political persuasion here, if you like) who frequents TJ’s. Surely someone shopping had been vaccinated. Accurate or not, my stereotype of the grocer’s typical customer is someone who would welcome vaccines and be among the first in line to get one. Dare I add: But also remain fearful and judge those who don’t share their terror while (silently, hopefully) condemning anyone who doesn’t behave as accommodatingly. I know, hasty generalizations are bad form—but if familiar with Trader Joe’s, would you seriously disagree?

While preferring not to wear a face covering, I am not anti-mask. During the past 12 months, I purchased three boxes of 50 Crosstex procedural face masks—two ASTM Level 2 and one ASTM 3. We waited to buy them Made in the USA, paid more for the privilege, and wear them.  Since TJ’s had relaxed rules for facial protection, I took advantage of an opportunity to shop unencumbered. My pulled-down mask meant nothing more to me than that. Had anyone asked me to cover up, I wouldn’t have hesitated to respectively comply.

Maybe I assign motivation to the woman refusing quarters. But I wonder: Would she have made the exchange if my face was covered? I think yes, and I will test the hypothesis in a future Trader Joe’s excursion. Regardless, time is coming for a values and culture clash between the masked and unmasked, even if both parties are vaccinated and the CDC guidance is return-to-pre-pandemic living. Will anyone choosing not to mask-up be treated differently (e.g. hostilely, discriminatorily) than those who do? I wonder.

I know this: Had the TJ’s quarter-withholding employee’s face been exposed, rather than covered, I wouldn’t be speculating about her motivations or store policy. Experienced journalists tend to be pretty good lie detectors, and even from eyes and vocal tone I confidently conclude she stiffed me for being maskless. But I would be certain had her full face been visible.

Chuckle time: The mishaps ahead could be culled into a future Netflix comedy series. Tens of thousands of people (millions, maybe?) will find they have developed something akin to Tourette syndrome. For more than a year, masks and other coverings have hidden facial expressions—that have become habits. I can imagine everything from grimaces to strawberries to utterances (like silent “Fuck You”). What a mess when the masks come off but the habitual behavior remains, and must be consciously restrained. Offense is certain. Will there be fist-fights in Walmart isles? You know the answer.

Update, May 21, 2021: Yesterday, I returned to Trader Joe’s wearing a mask and asked the same woman (I think; her face was covered) to exchange a $20 bill for quarters. She gave me two rolls.

I specifically shot the Featured Image to illustrate this essay. Vitals, aperture manually set: f/4, ISO 1000, 1/125 sec, 28mm; 4:15 p.m. PDT; Leica Q2 Monochrom.