I live in Montana, a red state with a deep core of Trump supporters. While my town has become a trendy mountain destination with residents who hold varying political views, just 15 minutes west of here is a more traditionally Montana spot: Trump banners hang from porches and Second Amendment bumper stickers are stuck on bumpers.
The coffee shop I work at is a humble spot on the conservative side of town. Some of our regulars carry pistols tucked into their waistbands. Some spend their weekends at survivalist conventions and firearm trade shows. Their views are markedly different than mine, but I love this space and my twice-weekly barista gig provides a reprieve from my freelance hours spent home alone in front of a computer.
We are a small crew and we know our regulars like friends. The job of a barista at this shop is to brew coffee and toast breakfast sandwiches, but it’s also to make our customers’ days better with cross-counter chat, a free day-old pastry, or some friendly keeping up with what’s going on in their lives. One had hip surgery. Another traveled across Montana to see his grandchildren compete in a rodeo. We follow up on the surgery, we ask about the rodeo. We know their orders and we recognize their trucks in the parking lot.
I’ve always overheard snippets of political chatter from our regulars, but I ignored it. We had political differences, but they just wanted to drink coffee and talk to their friends, and I was happy to be in the pleasant environment the shop was known for.
The state’s COVID-19 mask mandate has turned everything upside down.
As pandemic numbers increased during the spring of 2020, businesses struggled to find a balance between being safe and staying open. The shop owner asked us to wear masks before there was a mandate in Montana, but soon, state and county mask orders for indoor public spaces went into effect.
I hadn’t considered mask wearing during a pandemic to be a partisan issue, but for the first time, contradictory beliefs between customers and baristas about politics and freedom of choice crossed the counter. Many new and returning customers were respectful and understanding, but the ones who weren’t created a cloud of stress that hung over our shifts.
I hadn’t considered mask wearing during a pandemic to be a partisan issue, but for the first time, contradictory beliefs between customers and baristas about politics and freedom of choice crossed the counter.
The first person to be kicked out was Jerry, a customer who had come in every day for as long as I’d worked there. Every morning around 7:00, he would order the same thing ― a 20-ounce Americano and a breakfast burrito. I’d always looked forward to our banter and the one-dollar tip he’d slap on the counter.
But when the mask mandate went into effect, a rift opened between us and then widened. Jerry would saunter up to the counter, sans mask, making direct eye contact. I’d feel my heart rate increase and dread creep in. It was too early for this.
“Jerry, please put your mask on,” I told him. “There’s a mandate in the state and it’s required in the coffee shop.”
I’d reach for the box of surgical masks behind the counter, but he’d roll his eyes and extract a grimy blue mask out of his pocket. He’d put it on with a heavy sigh and then dramatically pull it down under his nose. I’d grit my teeth behind my own mask as I made his order.
After too many days of this, I left my co-worker out front and, leaning against the wall in the back room, tapped out a quick text to the shop owner. Jerry was here again, refusing to wear a mask. We’re really sick of it.
To Jerry, we were now the enemies standing between his freedom to not wear a mask and his desire to sit with his buddies at the counter, enjoying his coffee. The shop owner had our backs. He sent a message to me apologizing for the trouble and saying that he’d take care of it.
I didn’t feel good about getting Jerry kicked out. I also wanted him to wear a mask. But because he wouldn’t, the owner of the coffee shop told him he couldn’t come back and he hasn’t since that morning.
“Do you wear a shirt and shoes in here?” I wanted to ask Jerry and everyone else who refused to follow our mask policy. “That’s also required.” If they didn’t want to see reason in slowing the spread of COVID-19, maybe I could compare it to something as mundane as a pair of shoes. But instead I kept my mouth shut and tried to curb my shortening temper as more customers leaned over the counter to tell us why they didn’t want to wear a mask.
I was understanding for the first few weeks. I had cordial conversations with regulars and unfamiliar customers, and sympathetically told them, “I know masks are a pain, but it’s the rule right now.” No, I didn’t actually believe masks were a pain, but humoring them seemed like a good way to avoid further unpleasantness. With each incident, however, our patience became shorter and my co-workers and I began to dread the unavoidable altercations.
My understanding of our customers changed. Each time they walked in bare-faced despite our mask mandate signs, my heart sank.
Another regular was an older man who refused to wear a mask. He’d grudgingly hold one against his face at the counter even as we asked him to wear it correctly. Then, for three weeks in a row, he wasn’t there at all.
“Where’s Dave?” I asked my co-worker one morning as we stood next to each other steaming pitchers of milk.
“Oh, you didn’t hear? He got COVID.”
By the next week, Dave had recovered and was back at the shop, holding court at the counter. I overheard him telling the others that he’d had the coronavirus. “It wasn’t so bad,” he claimed, before dismissing much of the panic as a “government hoax.”
My co-worker sighed. “The only thing more exhausting than COVID deniers are the ones who get COVID and don’t think it’s a big deal.”
As the months wore on, morale behind the counter fell palpably lower. We grew tense and quick to snap. Instead of my calmly explaining the mask policy each time, my fuse was instantly lit. A maskless customer would approach the counter and I’d thrust a mask at them before greeting them. I didn’t mean to. It just happened.
“You need to wear a mask in here,” I’d say, aware of my acidic tone but unable to soften it. If they as much as started to contradict me, I’d repeat what I said but louder. It was the opposite of my formerly friendly customer-service self. I wasn’t looking for a fight, but I felt like I was having a fight pushed at me every time someone continued to argue.
My understanding of our customers changed. Each time they walked in bare-faced despite our mask mandate signs, my heart sank. Some of the people I’d been friendly with for years seemed to hold no respect not only for our policies but for our health and safety behind the counter.
I heard horror stories of other young, healthy service-industry workers getting exposed to the virus at work. They relayed how it felt to lose their sense of taste and smell, the days spent wracked with body aches, the shortness of breath, the vertigo and nausea. The coffee shop was my part-time job, but for the other baristas, it was their only income. They needed to come to work or they couldn’t pay rent. Each shift, our chance of exposure increased.
During one particularly exhausting morning of maskless customers, I checked in with a friend who had been waiting tables at a popular downtown restaurant throughout the pandemic. She described customers being escorted out by management, tables of people putting up a fight, diners purposely leaving masks behind as they walked to the bathroom.
“I’ve become fucking frigid,” she texted.
That shift I was working with Elise, a college student who seemed close to erupting as more maskless customers strutted past the mask-required signs. It no longer felt like a conversation ― it was automatically a confrontation. At this point in the game, the county and state had mandated masks indoors in public spaces for months. They all knew better.
We found a chalkboard in the back and propped it up near the register.
Elise wrote in big, blocky letters, “We cannot serve you without a mask.” Underneath, she added, “State mandate, county mandate, business mandate.” Elise highlighted each word in different colors and we leaned it against the gallon jug of hand sanitizer.
Each maskless interaction was in close quarters, less than 3 feet apart. The day before, our county had seen a record number of new COVID-19 cases. It was a busy morning, and watching customers lean over the counter toward me, mouths and noses blowing what I imagined were germy particles into my face, had me completely frayed.
It no longer felt like a conversation ― it was automatically a confrontation. At this point in the game, the county and state had mandated masks indoors in public spaces for months. They all knew better.
As my shift wound down, a group who had been occupying our conference room got up to leave. We had watched them come in from the hallway a few hours earlier, most without masks. We were so tired that we hadn’t said anything. If they came up to the counter, we agreed, we would ask them to put masks on.
As they departed, one of them approached the counter. He looked like a high schooler, tall and gangly, maybe 15 or 16.
“Do you have a mask you can put on?” I said, feeling the familiar edge in my gut.
“No, I don’t,” he said. I grabbed the pack of blue masks and ripped the plastic off a fresh one. I held it out to him.
“Here, you have to put this on.” As I handed it over, the string snapped. He held it up to his face.
“That won’t work,” I said, too harshly for the situation. He fumbled, grasping at the broken string. I thrust another mask at him, feeling my teeth grind. He was flustered. I was drained.
“Here! Take this one then!” I grabbed a face shield and waved it over the register.
He kept fumbling with the mask, his face turning red.
“I have a medical condition,” he said. “Please, ma’am, stop being disrespectful.”
My face flushed and my breathing was ragged. I didn’t know what was disrespectful anymore. I couldn’t regulate my tone. I was so exhausted. I took his order. I made his frappe. I handed over his change. I cried in my truck on the way home.
I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. to open the coffee shop looking to fight with customers. We baristas are so tired of being on edge all day. We now expect to be argued with, berated, breathed on. We’re running out of ways to defend the mask policy. We can’t keep track of infection numbers to recite. We just want to keep the shop open, keep our jobs and not get sick. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?
Note: Names and some identifying characteristics have been changed.
Maggie Slepian is a full-time writer (and part-time barista) based in Montana. She is the co-founder of Backpacking Routes, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Outside, Backpacker, REI Co-op Journal, and elsewhere.