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Customer's always right? Not when maskless in Flagstaff
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Customer's always right? Not when maskless in Flagstaff

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He strode into Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters one recent evening with smartphone in hand, video rolling, with major attitude, and with one objective in mind that clearly did not involve buying apparel or wilderness equipment. 

What he didn’t have was a mask on his face.

So Maddie Smith, working the front checkout register that night, politely asked the bearded man in wrap-around shades to abide by the mask regulations of the City of Flagstaff, reinforced by no less than six signs at Babbitt’s front entrance.

Things deteriorated from there. The “customer” turned out to be an alt-right influencer and provocateur named Anthine Giomet, better known on social media as “Baked Alaska.” He was live-streaming this encounter on Twitch, the video platform. Smith and another Babbitt’s worker repeatedly asked Giomet to leave the store if he would not wear a mask, and Giomet argued his anti-mask views and refused to depart. The police were called, and Baked Alaska got cuffed and hauled in, though later not charged.

The whole five-minute spectacle was a stunt, sure. But, as Smith said later, this was hardly the only mask-standoff Flagstaff businesses have faced during the pandemic. Though, generally, business owners downtown say the vast majority of their customers comply with neither comment nor rancor, there are some who rebel, citing “personal freedom” or health conditions for heading into businesses bare-faced.

Many retail workers, such as Smith at Babbitt’s, feel vulnerable when they have to wait on customers who flout the mask mandate. Not every scofflaw is as brazen as Baked Alaska, she said, but many are adamant in their refusal to mask up.

“I’d say that going that far (as Giomet) was an outlier,” Smith said. “But not wearing a mask? No, that’s not an outlier. There’s definitely been problems. That’s why we have all the signs up.”

Not only does Babbitt’s have a multi-hued sandwich board propped up near the front entrance that spells out in giant letters that masks are required, ringing the main message are not-so-subtle suggestions, such as “Mask Goes Over Your Nose, Too!” and “Respect Social Distancing!” As if the idea weren’t reinforced enough, there also is a directional sign to a jumbo-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer.

Still …

“It’s been a consistent thing with us,” Smith said. “We talk to people about it all the time. And that wasn’t the first time we had to call the police on someone. It’s a pretty easy line for us to cross. As soon as we ask them to leave and they don’t, we can call the police. That’s been our go-to thing. It’s trespassing, whether it’s not wearing a mask or (bad) behavior. That’s a conversation we’ve had with the police early on, when we first noticed there was a problem. We knew (Giomet) was looking to start something.”

Smith and a few downtown Flagstaff business owners experiencing mask issues can only speculate that the problems arise from tourists. It’s not as if they ask offenders where they live before asking them to leave. But Smith has her theories.

“Our foot traffic this summer and fall has been largely out of town, so my assumption is that it’s out-of-town people doing this, but I don’t know for sure,” she said. “People in Flagstaff don’t realize this is a problem. They don’t know that in the store you walked into, an employee may have just been screamed at by someone for asking them to wear a mask. We had someone come in here and cough all over the store 10 minutes after we asked him to leave. It just kind of rattles people. It’s something other people are dealing with.”

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Surrounding businesses have not been affected as much as Babbitt’s.

Raemy Winton, who works at the coffee shop Late for the Train, said nearly all the non-mask-wearers there tell her they have a doctor’s note exempting them from mask use for medical reasons.

“I just kind of take their word for it,” she said. “Generally, though, people are pretty good with it.”

The policy at Hops on Birch, says manager Elena Van Liew, is that customers must wear a mask when ordering beer up front but can sit indoors at tables maskless. The tables are spaced apart.

The same holds for the Juice Pub & Eatery. Owner Riant Northway said, flatly, “Everybody wears one, but nobody likes them. Myself included. But we do it.”

Some out-of-town visitors say they are annoyed with Flagstaff’s mask mandate, but comply anyway. James Medlin, of Bullhead City, near Kingman, was visiting with his family. Before heading into the Pita Pit for lunch, Medlin reached for a red mask from his jeans pocket. He wore it like a chin strap, not covering his nose.

“I don’t like it,” said Medlin, sporting a T-shirt bearing the inscription, “Don’t mess with my family, my firearms, my freedom” next to an eagle emblem. “They’ve done studies, you know, that shows that masks don’t help contain the virus. Really, it’s all useless. Where we live, in Bullhead City, and around Kingman, they lifted the mask order early. I think people are overacting.

“No mask is going to stop any virus. None of those masks are. Read up on it. I’m not trying to judge other people’s choices. They’re free to wear masks. I just don’t think it does anything.”

Lacy Konecky and Max Long, high-schoolers from Prescott visiting for the day, said there might be a generational divide when it comes to mask-wearing.

“It seems a lot better (in Flagstaff),” Konecky said. “There’s a lot more young people here, and I feel, in Prescott, there are more older people who don’t want to wear a mask.”

Added Long: “It’s more right wing in Prescott. That might have something to do with it.”

But Lori and Michael Bryson, middle-aged tourists from Dallas sipping drinks outside the tea shop Steep, said mask-wearing should transcend age and political affiliation.

“At this point, it’s necessary,” Michael said. “It’s a way of life for the time being until we get through this. I get the whole personal freedom thing, but if it makes you more comfortable for me to wear one, then then why not do it?”

“And it’s common courtesy,” Lori added.

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