The heightened penalty comes as frontline workers are increasingly tasked with enforcing mask policies for customers.

By Jelisa Castrodale
August 11, 2020
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Things are about to get tough for anti-maskers in Illinois. Last week, governor J.B. Pritzker passed a law that comes with even stiffer penalties for anyone who assaults a retail worker in the state—including supermarket staffers—over that store's mask policy. Under the new legislation, any person who physically attacks a worker who is "conveying public health guidance" could be charged with felony aggravated battery.

“As our state faces the challenges created by the ongoing global pandemic, we are doing all we can to support and protect our front line and essential workers,” State Representative Jay Hoffman said in a statement. “This legislation allows front line workers that have been impacted by COVID-19 to focus on recovering while sending a clear message to all our essential workers that we are behind them and will do all we can to protect their safety and well-being.”

Credit: Gypsy Picture Show/Getty Images

As CNN reported, the new legislation also gives the state's health departments and law enforcement officers "more leeway" to enforce pandemic-related health public orders in local businesses. The first time a business is found to be non-compliant with public health guidance, it will receive a written warning. The second offense will require some or all of its customers to leave in order to ensure that it is compliant with the current requirements (presumably like keeping adequate distance between its patrons, or ensuring that the capacity doesn't exceed whatever percentage of total occupancy is currently allowed). The third violation could come with a class A misdemeanor and/or a fine of anywhere between $75 and $2,500.

"These rules, which provide multiple opportunities for compliance before any penalty is issued, are a commonsense way to enforce public health guidelines," Pritzker said. "Illinois has made substantial progress in our fight against COVID-19 because the vast majority of communities and business owners have done the right thing. These rules will help ensure that the minority of people who refuse to act responsibly won’t take our state backward."

It's both disturbing and disappointing that so many retail and foodservice workers have faced physical violence for enforcing their employers' face-covering policies. In late July, two thirtysomething men allegedly assaulted seven crew members and three managers during a violent anti-mask rampage through a Trader Joe's store in Manhattan; one of the workers suffered a head injury and was treated at a nearby hospital.

Earlier in July, a teenage McDonald's drive-thru worker in Oakland, California was assaulted by a customer when she asked him to wear a mask. In June, a Starbucks barista in Lancaster, California was punched in the face by a customer who didn't want to wear a mask in the store. (And this is just a sampling of the incidents that have been reported.)

The anti-mask abuse isn't restricted to the United States: workers at the Co-op grocery chain in England reported 990 incidents of "anti-social behavior and verbal abuse" during the first week after masks became mandatory in shops throughout the country. "We’ve seen a marked rise in abuse, threats and even assaults on shop workers during the Covid crisis and believe [face coverings] could be another flashpoint," a Co-op spokesperson said, according to the Telegraph. "That’s why we continue to campaign for greater protection, with a new offense which dishes out stiffer sentences to those guilty of harming shop workers."

On August 1, McDonald's own face-covering requirements went into effect at all of its restaurants throughout the United States, and President and CEO Chris Kempczinski said that they "might bring in law enforcement" if customers refused to comply. "Ultimately, we're not going to be asking our crew people to put themselves in harm's way," he said. "I think the vast majority of people, the vast majority of Americans understand why it's important to be wearing a mask."

You'd hope so. Apparently instituting a stiffer penalty for anyone who assaults a retail worker over face mask policies was still a necessary step in at least one state.