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The city of Stillwater, Oklahoma, will no longer require customers entering stores and restaurants to wear face masks after employees received violent threats — including one from a person who threatened a shooting.
The new requirements went into effect on Friday as restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms across the state were allowed to reopen by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt in spite of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The openings prompted Stillwater leaders to set a series of new safety requirements at local businesses, including that both customers and employees wear face masks.
But within three hours, city officials said, multiple businesses reported their employees were facing verbal abuse and violent threats over the new rule.
"The City of Stillwater has attempted to keep people safe by the simple requirement to wear a face covering to protect others," city manager Norman McNickle said in a statement. "It is unfortunate and distressing that those who refuse and threaten violence are so self-absorbed as to not follow what is a simple show of respect and kindness to others."
People who objected to the face mask rule claimed that it was unconstitutional, which hasn't yet been supported by courts, McNickle pointed out. Last week, a lawsuit against Guthrie, Oklahoma's measures requiring face masks and banning gatherings was dismissed by a federal judge.
Meanwhile, the CDC and Oklahoma's health officials recommend face masks for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, particularly by people who may not know they're infected.
"The wearing of face coverings is [a] little inconvenience to protect both the wearer and anyone with whom they have contact," McNickle said. "And, an unprotected person who contracts the virus can infect their own loved ones and others."
Though the city is still urging everyone to wear face masks inside businesses, it's no longer a citywide requirement for customers.
"In that effort to insure the safety of others, we now have to weigh the safety of store owners and employees to threats of violence," McNickle said. "We cannot, in clear conscience, put our local business community in harm’s way, nor can the police be everywhere."
But, just as they may require shirts or shoes for service, individual businesses can create their own face mask policies.
The citywide mandate was walked back Friday afternoon, but before then, rumors on social media falsely said police were pulling over drivers and ticketing people for not wearing masks, according to the Stillwater Police Department's Chief Jeff Watts.
That's not true, he said, but the police department is responding to complaints about gatherings of 10 people or more. And if a business chooses to require face masks, and a customer without one refuses to leave, police could be called on a trespassing complaint.
As for customers who are uncomfortable with a lack of face masks, they have a choice.
"If you enter a business and are uncomfortable with other patrons not wearing a face covering," Watts said, "you have the option of leaving the business or continuing to shop."