In the past week, Wilmette became a microcosm of the nationally relevant mask debate.
A customer recently visited a local business and was greeted by two maskless employees serving a masked patron, leading to tidal waves of outrage and counter-outrage that now seem commonplace in a time of growing political polarization. A subsequent unannounced village health inspection on July 20 found all employees and customers in the establishment masked.
While it may be tempting to label a winner in every local controversy that arises, this one seems different, as rising COVID-19 case counts make disagreements about basic personal responsibility appear increasingly moot. The seven day moving average of case counts in suburban Cook County have steadily increased from 149 on July 5 to 222 on July 20, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner of Cook County.
On Friday, July 3, Evanston resident and frequent Wilmette patron Mark Miller visited Al’s Meat Market, which had a sign posted on the front door telling customers that, although masks were being sold within, anyone inside the establishment had the right to not wear a face covering. Inside, Miller chose to wear a mask and found another customer doing the same, yet both employees behind the counter refrained from wearing face coverings.
“I was just kind of shocked. When I first saw the sign, I was kind of confused by it, because it said both masks are for sale and you don’t have to wear one, which is sort of a mixed message,” Miller said in a recent phone interview. “There were two gentlemen behind the counter, neither of them wearing masks, and I was just sort of stunned by the whole thing.”
The following Tuesday, Miller sent an email recounting his experience to village officials in hopes of receiving a “better sense of where Wilmette was at with this issue.”
Village Manager Michael Braiman, one of the recipients of this email, responded that facial coverings are required for “all customers and employees” in any Wilmette business and promised village staff would follow up with the business owner.
The business owner is Joe Spera, a well-known figure in the community who took over the butcher shop in 1991. Although Spera declined to comment on the signage outside his shop, a feature article in the Daily North Shore from three years ago describes him as hardworking, friendly and generally old-fashioned. He also appears to have a sense of humor–recently, he added a sign offering “Hip & Joint Replacements,” “Vasectomies,” and “Attitude Adjustments” alongside pictures of a hand saw, meat cleaver and bottle of alcohol, respectively. To date, the sign telling customers they have a right not to wear a mask remains outside as well.
Miller followed up this past Saturday and found no change in behavior. The sign allowing maskless customers remained up, and Miller says an employee was working in the shop without a mask. After sending another email, Braiman responded that the village had asked Spera for “voluntary” compliance, writing that they “cannot regulate what an individual businesses signage communicates.”
After getting this response, Miller took his concerns to the social media platform Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based forum with a user interface similar to Facebook. Five days later, the post has garnered more than 228 comments representing a wide variety of opinions and counter-opinions. Miller called the dialogue under his post “somewhat surprising and, frankly, sad.”
“My general sense was that roughly three-quarters of the people were saying ‘Yes, that’s reasonable and sensible and we should do this,’ while another 20 or 25 percent were kind of ‘Hey, I have personal liberty to do this or not do this,’” Miller said.
Cameron Krueger, a former village trustee and current member of the Board of Fire & Police Commissioners, articulated a more libertarian view in his comments, saying “I respect the shop owner’s rights,” and pointing out that anyone who had a problem with the signage allowing entry without a mask could simply go to a different store.
Most commenters defending Spera’s actions argued for personal freedom and criticized the inclination toward derisive comments over “civil debate.” Rational, civil debate often starts with shared foundations of truth. In the discussion of whether it is within the government’s responsibility to require face coverings under the threat of legal action, one almost universally accepted truth is that face coverings are an important part of controlling the coronavirus.
Official guidance from the WHO, CDC, State of Illinois and Village of WIlmette all ask that people wear face coverings, especially when indoors or unable to socially distance, to suppress transmission of the virus. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, one of the major differences between Europe, where cases are steadily decreasing, and America, where cases are rising, is mask compliance.
Furthermore, the reality of what non-medical masks actually accomplish seems to go against notions of personal freedom. According to the CDC, non-medical masks do not necessarily prevent virus particles from entering the mouth and nose. Instead, these cloth face coverings “may help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”
Therefore, wearing a mask is not a decision to protect yourself; it is a decision to protect others. In a phone interview separate from his social media post, Miller spoke about this reality, comparing the personal freedom not to wear a mask to the obviously absurd personal freedom to drive drunk. Miller says he uses this analogy to underscore the idea that personal liberty ends when it may put others in danger.
“Do I have the right to drive drunk and put your life at risk, for example?” he said. “That’s literally what we’re talking about.”