The Other Victims Of The Pandemic: Workers Killed In Fights Over Masks
Essential workers have borne the brunt of a pandemic poisoned by politics. BuzzFeed News found at least four frontline employees who died in fights over masks. Here are their stories.
Danny Jordan has replayed the events of June 14 over and over again in his head, trying to make sense of how a soft-spoken cashier at the supermarket where he provided security ended up being killed in a dispute about masks.
“To lose somebody over this is...I can’t even find a word to describe it,” Jordan, a DeKalb County Sheriff Reserve deputy who was injured in a shootout with the suspect, told BuzzFeed News. “I just have racked my brain and racked my brain, and I keep trying to come up with, why did this guy do this?”
Laquitta Willis, 41, was killed last month while working her shift at Big Bear Supermarket in Decatur, Georgia. Law enforcement has said that Willis and a customer got into an argument about a mask before he left the store, returned with a gun, and shot her. Ray Kim, the owner of Big Bear Supermarket, told BuzzFeed News that Willis had asked the customer to pull up his face mask as he came up to the cash register to pay for his items.
“Very senseless,” Kim said of the shooting. “I almost feel like he had an intent to kill someone that day.”
The politicization of the pandemic and the safety measures around it, especially mask-wearing, has led to altercations across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many of them verbal, some of them physical. In Iowa, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after getting into a fight and spitting on someone who asked him to wear his mask properly in a store. In Michigan, a man who refused to put a mask on in a convenience store stabbed another customer, and was later shot and killed by a police officer.
Frontline workers who have been expected to become enforcers of safety precautions have had that wrath directed squarely at them, often with little to no institutional protections. When two men were denied entry into a California store for refusing to wear masks, one of them allegedly punched an employee, breaking his arm. A city in Oklahoma rescinded its mask mandate after multiple businesses reported that their workers were being threatened with violence. And a man was charged in Pennsylvania for allegedly punching a store clerk repeatedly in the face after she told him to wear a mask.
Steven Taylor, author of the 2019 book The Psychology of Pandemics and a psychiatry professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia, told BuzzFeed News he suspected some people saw those working in low-wage jobs as “lower status” and less likely to respond with aggression due to their roles in customer service, making them an easy outlet for anger.
“I think it’s a case of kick the cat,” said Taylor. “For some people who are feeling frustrated, angry, maybe they’re asking, ‘What can I get away with?’”
After reviews of news stories throughout the pandemic, BuzzFeed News tallied at least four instances, including the Big Bear Supermarket shooting, where disputes over masks ended up deadly for workers trying to enforce the rules. Like Willis, the other victims were Black essential workers, hard at work during one of the most collectively stressful times of our lives, and trying to protect themselves and others at their jobs. They didn’t die of COVID-19, but they, too, were victims of the pandemic.
“The thing about pandemics, especially COVID-19, is that it brings out extremes,” Taylor said. “We had the best in people and the worst.”
Jordan grew up in Decatur, working a 25-year law enforcement career until he retired from the DeKalb County Police Department in December. Since 2005, he has worked on and off as a part-time security guard at Big Bear Supermarket, a place where he knew most staff and customers. It felt like family.
He and Willis — or “Quitt,” as people called her — bonded during their shifts at the store and shared things in common, like having families in Roberta, a small town 90 miles south of Decatur.
Like many of its employees, Willis was a familiar face at Big Bear, having worked there for almost 10 years. She was fastidious about keeping her counter clean during the pandemic, according to Kim, the owner, and she always had a bottle of Lysol and hand sanitizer on her.
The day the shooting happened was like any other shift. Jordan, dressed in his sheriff’s deputy uniform, was talking to some of the other cashiers about his birthday the next day, downplaying his plans because he didn’t want anyone spending money on gifts. He saw the suspect, 30-year-old Victor Lee Tucker Jr., leave the store and come back about 30 seconds later but thought nothing of it, assuming he might have forgotten something.
Jordan then noticed the man and Willis speaking at her counter, and he heard snippets about a mask. That, too, did not strike him as unusual; cashiers often had to deal with customers who refused to mask up (DeKalb County’s mask mandate was still in effect then, even though the state mandate had expired). He panned the store, and when his gaze fell on Willis, he saw her arms raised in the air, and it looked as though the man was pushing her, Jordan said.
Jordan got up and went over, shouting at the man to leave Willis alone. “When I got about 5 feet from them, somebody yelled out, ‘He’s got a gun!’” Jordan recalled.
He thinks he heard the first gunshot just as he pulled out his own weapon. “A few seconds later, he and I were in a serious gun battle.”
“It was a regular, normal day,” Jordan said. “It just changed so quickly — like, a matter of a second or two.”
The suspect was arrested as he was trying to crawl out of the supermarket’s front door. He is now facing charges of murder and aggravated assault.
“It was a regular, normal day. It just changed so quickly — like, a matter of a second or two.”
Those who knew Willis described her as a quiet and mild-mannered person, never rattled by confrontation — which made the shooting all the more dumbfounding. Even when customers got angry or rude, Willis “always took the high road,” Jordan said.
Her sister, Alexis Breland, told CBS46 that Willis was loving and dependable. “She was quiet at times, but once you got to know her, just an amazing person,” she said. Willis helped put her through college, Breland said, and was always supportive.
Jamila Westbrook, a former schoolmate of Willis’s at McNair Senior High who worked with her at another grocery store, described her as “a gentle spirit with very few words.”
“She didn’t say enough words to anyone to make [anyone] upset, nor did she have a nasty attitude,” Westbrook told BuzzFeed News.
Big Bear closed for a few days after the shooting before reopening to a community shaken by the sudden, senseless burst of violence.
“The sweetest, quietest one that never got into an altercation or argument with a customer,” Kim said, “actually was the one that got killed.”
The patchwork US response to the pandemic has been perplexing and exasperating, with federal, state, and county leaders instituting different and sometimes contradictory mandates and guidelines. But the pandemic — and masks in particular — became a political flashpoint in large part because of former president Donald Trump, who downplayed the virus from the very start as he sought to reassure the country ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
As cases and hospitalizations surged, he accused the media of focusing too much on COVID-19. His attitude about the pandemic extended to mocking mask-wearing and ignoring guidance from public health experts, endangering his own supporters. Republicans across the country followed his lead, striking down mask mandates, scoffing at those who exercised caution, and lashing out at public health officials who repeatedly urged people to follow recommended safety measures. (Trump and many other top Republicans subsequently contracted the virus after a maskless event at the White House.)
Frontline essential workers have borne the brunt of a pandemic poisoned by politics. A University of Massachusetts survey of workers in six states from November 2020 found almost half the respondents indicated that customers or coworkers frequently refused to comply when asked to follow COVID-19 policies. Those who worked in retail and hospitality had to deal with the most resistance to masks and social distancing, the survey found, and low-wage workers were more likely to have to deal with people refusing to comply.
These altercations caused added stress for employees who were already forced to deal with increasingly unruly customers who appeared to have forgotten their manners during the pandemic. Taylor, the UBC professor, points to recent reports of customers and passengers behaving badly at establishments, on public transport, and during air travel. “You are seeing psychological entitlement as the economy opens up,” he said. “This sort of, ‘I deserve, I deserve,’ sort of self-focused attitude, combined with stress and irritability, translates into bad behavior.”
That bad behavior can turn fatal in the blink of an eye, as was the case for Frankye Duckett, a Baltimore bus driver killed in January 2021.
Duckett worked for the Maryland Transit Administration’s MobilityLink program, transporting passengers with disabilities around Baltimore. The 49-year-old commuted to work from Pennsylvania, where he lived and was hoping to retire in a few years, the Baltimore Sun reported.
But one Friday night in January, Duckett got into an argument with the grandson of a passenger he was picking up. Security footage showed that as the bus approached the next stop, a man, who police say was the grandson, exited a car and shot at Duckett through the window, then fled in the car. (He was arrested in April and charged with murder, court records show).
Local outlets reported that Duckett’s family was told the argument started between the two men after Duckett told the grandson that he was not allowed on the bus without a face mask.
“How do you kill somebody because they tell you to put your mask on?” Duckett’s stepfather, Charles Jackson, told FOX Baltimore.
Roddy Keith Sanders, Duckett’s friend, told the Baltimore Sun that he was a friendly guy who cracked jokes. “You always hear people say this, but I can’t believe this happened to him… somebody that’s never been in trouble, never been a tough guy who wanted to start trouble,” Sanders said.
Duckett was the second MTA bus driver killed by a passenger in three months (the first was killed after an argument not about masks), and union officials have since called for extra protective measures for drivers. A spokesperson for First Transit, a provider for MTA’s MobilityLink program, told BuzzFeed News that Duckett’s death was “very painful for all of us,” but declined to comment further.
Lindsay Wiley, the director of the health law and policy program at the American University Washington College of Law, told BuzzFeed News that leaders in government and institutions have failed to protect essential workers.
“These leaders have deflected blame from themselves by focusing on individual choice and personal responsibility,” she added, which in turn can make people turn on each other. “It fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality that can easily map onto political, racial, socioeconomic, and geographic divisions.”
In Flint, Michigan, everyone knew Calvin Munerlyn as “Duper,” a nickname from his mother that stuck. He was a big man with a big presence, and though people were intimidated by his size on first impression, he won them over with his easy charm.
“He was like my big teddy bear,” his widow Latryna Sims told BuzzFeed News.
Munerlyn was a workaholic and a “workout-a-holic,” Sims said. He had a day job as a security guard at Family Dollar, and in the winter, he worked the night shift at a warming center run by Catholic Charities, a community-based nonprofit.
Munerlyn loved his jobs. He was a good employee and a good colleague. Greg Coulter, the facilities director at Catholic Charities, told BuzzFeed News he was well-liked among staff and clients.
On May 1, 2020, during his shift at Family Dollar, Munerlyn told a woman that she had to wear a mask to enter the store. According to police and prosecutors, the woman’s mother became irate and spat at Munerlyn, who then instructed a cashier not to serve her. The two women left in a car, returning about 20 minutes later with the woman’s father and brother. The father yelled at Munerlyn about disrespecting the women in his family, and then the son allegedly pulled out a gun and shot Munerlyn in the head. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
It had been less than two months since Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency, during a time when the president was already pushing for businesses to reopen. Munerlyn was the first known case of an essential worker being killed while trying to enforce coronavirus safety precautions.
Munerlyn was vigilant about keeping his family safe during the pandemic. They avoided nonessential trips and took precautions seriously. If everyone else did the same at Family Dollar — and as a security guard, he was there to make sure of that — Munerlyn felt comfortable going in to work. “As long as he could protect somebody, he was OK,” Sims said.
Munerlyn had only been working at Family Dollar for a little over a year when he died. He left his previous job providing security at nightclubs due to safety concerns, Sims said: “Never would we have thought that at Family Dollar he would have got into a situation like this.”
Sims and Munerlyn had been inseparable since they’d met 23 years ago. People in Flint didn’t know one of them without the other. He had a seemingly infinite well of energy, one that even Sims couldn’t always keep up with. Despite their busy schedules, the couple carved out time for each other. Sims visited him on lunch breaks and they checked in with each other on video calls. Every day after work, Sims or one of their children would pick him up.
Munerlyn’s death loomed large over the community. A flag was flown over the Michigan state capitol in his memory, and his family accepted the key to the city on his behalf. He was also posthumously named Parent of the Year at Madison Academy High School, where his daughter Cavetta Munerlyn graduated with a 4.0 just days after he died.
Sims said the accolades spoke to how beloved Munerlyn was in Flint. But they did nothing to ease the pain of her losing her soulmate. She has thrown herself into work and family, staying busy to avoid dwelling on her thoughts and rallying the community to show up and support her family during the ongoing trial of those accused of his murder.
For over two decades, she had been enveloped in his love. Munerlyn was her whole life.
“To go from that, every day, to nothing,” she said, her voice breaking. “If I can be quite blunt with you, it’s fucked up. That was my world. And they took that from us.”
The seemingly irrational nature of these pandemic-related killings can be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to comprehend. When Nikisha Thomas heard that her colleague Martinus Mitchum was killed at a high school basketball game in February 2021, she was in disbelief. “It was numbing,” said Thomas. “It just broke my heart. … He didn’t deserve it.”
According to police, Mitchum, a Tulane University police officer and an enrollment manager at the Athlos Academy of Jefferson Parish, was providing security at the game when a man who refused to mask up physically assaulted a school employee after being denied entry.
Mitchum intervened, and as he escorted the man out of the building, police say the man fired two shots, one of which struck Mitchum in the chest, killing him.
The suspect, 35-year-old John Shallerhorn, was indicted last month on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery with a firearm; he had allegedly robbed a man at gunpoint in a parking lot just before attempting to enter the school.
When Thomas and Mitchum first started working at Athlos Academy a few months apart in 2018, he was quiet and mostly kept to himself. But they became friends over the years, developing a morning routine that Thomas has since come to miss dearly: Every day, before students and colleagues trickled into the building, they listened to a sermon or a clip from a motivational speaker on YouTube and talked about it.
“This is so simple, the guy could have just left. It didn’t have to escalate to this.”
Mitchum, who was also a reserve 2nd City Court constable, was passionate about his law enforcement career, too. Sheryl Eaglin, a former coworker, told NOLA.com that Mitchum loved protecting others — like the teenagers and families at the basketball game that fateful day.
He had “that officer personality,” Thomas recalled, and was observant and straightforward, with a by-the-book attitude. Mitchum was a devout churchgoer and had a strong moral compass, and she felt safe around him. But he also held a soft spot for the children he worked with. In the mornings, he stood in the hallway and greeted shy kindergarteners who walked by. “That was definitely one of the main things that I loved about him,” she said. “He was very serious at times, but when it came to the kids, he was very warm and welcoming.”
Thomas has continued their ritual of starting the day off with an inspirational message, but she does it at home now, by herself, as part of her morning meditation. She has been reading a book that Mitchum recommended to her, and often thinks about him.
“I still can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s very unreal,” she said about losing her friend. “I think that's why it took a lot for me to just come to grips with it, because it's like, Are you kidding me? Like, this is so simple, the guy could have just left. It didn't have to escalate to this.”
Back in Decatur, Jordan, the sheriff’s deputy, feels blessed to be alive. He was shot in the chest, but his bulletproof vest saved him. Another bullet narrowly missed his collarbone.
But the trauma of his friend Willis being killed over a face mask, and the knowledge that he very nearly was as well, has lingered. “Knowing that somebody actually tried to take your life — that part is going to take a little while to get through,” he said. “To be quite honest, there’s no way I should have survived that.”
Days after the shooting, he mustered up the strength to go to Big Bear Supermarket for a candlelight vigil for Willis. He was glad he did. Before the vigil started, he got to see the other employees for the first time since June 14. They hugged, they shed some tears, they talked about what happened and how they were processing it.
He misses his coworkers at Big Bear, but whether he’ll return to his part-time job there is a question for another day.
Jordan has been going to counseling sessions to help him process the tragedy and trauma caused by a face mask. Some days are better than others.
“That psychological part [of] that whole ordeal, and still just trying to wrap my head around the senselessness of that,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to figure that out.” ●