There’s no shortage of quarantine — and mask — fatigue across the country. After two months of stay-at-home orders, folks are naturally weary of health and distancing rules, regardless of the rule makers. Recent media reports have focused on consumers angrily reacting to companies requiring face masks and sanctioning shoppers who fail to comply. In one viral video, a Costco consumer got his shopping cart taken away from him when he refused to wear a mask.
Cries of “I woke up in a free country” aside, there’s nothing “unfree” about businesses imposing their own rules about what patrons can wear or do while on company property. It’s perfectly fine for businesses to revise those worn, vintage “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs to say: “No manners, no mask, no to your money.”
Most states across the country are reopening in some form, and retailers are having to acclimate to a new, cautious environment. Understandably, many stores currently allowing consumers inside their establishments are only doing so on the condition that shoppers wear masks. That doesn’t seem like a bad policy, given that masks can reduce coronavirus transmission rates by as much as 75%, according to a Hong Kong University study.
Regardless of how reasonable these measures are, though, there will inevitably be patrons unhappy with oppressive-feeling requirements. There have even been violent acts committed by angry consumers against store clerks and owners telling consumers to put their masks on.
For instance, on May 1, a Decatur, Illinois, man shoved a mini-market employee who told him to cover up before entering the establishment. From Wilkes-Barre Township, Pennsylvania, to St. Clair Shores, Michigan, similar incidents have transpired.
But this isn’t about mere disagreements with requirements readily enforced by companies. If consumers aren’t interested in following the mandates of Costco or mini-markets, they can simply refrain from shopping there and advise like-minded consumers to do the same. Shoppers such as the Costco vigilante are taking a different, more radical approach — implying that such store requirements are un-American and antithetical to liberty. And the perpetrators of violence against store employees are taking things even farther, imposing force to defend the supposed ideals of a free country.
But this idea of the “American Way” runs counter to what liberty and freedom are all about. The American tradition has long honored the right of businesses to forge their own paths and set their own terms for commerce. As a result, restaurants and stores have wide latitude in making sure that their consumers behave respectfully toward others and meet minimum, acceptable dress codes. Sure, open-air beachside restaurants are known to be dogged in their determination to make sun-kissed patients cover up, but that’s not an infringement of somebody’s civil liberties. These rules should not result in rejected consumers going on tirades about freedom or trying to impose their ideals on others. Ditto with dress requirements at five-star restaurants and highly regarded nightclubs. Sure, the requirements are pretentious, but that’s their prerogative.
And it’s their prerogative to change them, too. Especially at work, company dress codes are generally getting more relaxed as employers realize that unnecessary restrictions could harm their image and/or hiring ability. Companies from Starbucks to Walmart to Goldman Sachs are loosening expectations on their workers as they conclude that strict codes aren’t helping their bottom lines.
Even so, the other side of the coin is just as important. Companies and event organizers reasonably feel the need to safeguard against indecent exposure (e.g. the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), and yes, COVID-19 exposure. Sometimes, the motivations behind these restrictions look silly with the passage of time. For example, a Eugene, Oregon, newspaper from 1972 highlights the zeitgeist leading to shirt-and-shoes restrictions: “Hippies have taken over the north end of town and the business people don’t like it. They have signs saying shoes and shirts are required — no entrance to bare feet.” Most businesses nowadays probably wouldn’t use the rationale of hippies run amok to impose shoe-and-shirt requirements on consumers. But modern-day shops and restaurants likely have other, more understandable reasons for imposing these rules, such as hygiene.
Similarly, mask requirements imposed by businesses may be seen as paranoid or ineffective with the passage of time. But companies cautiously reopening are doing what they feel they must to safely serve consumers. And that’s for them to decide, not overzealous patrons trying to impose their “freedom” on others.
Ross Marchand is a Young Voices contributor and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.