The use of face masks in public spaces, private businesses, and the workplace has proven controversial in some quarters, despite scientific evidence that mask wearing saves lives by reducing the spread of the coronavirus. In an attempt to discourage attacks on workers enforcing mask rules, the Illinois General Assembly recently classified violent resistance to following public health regulations as “aggravated battery,” instead of “simple battery.”
It has been common knowledge for some time—and the overwhelming consensus of scientists and public health officials—that wearing face masks greatly reduces the spread of the novel coronavirus, thus protecting many people from developing COVID-19. As a result, public officials have enacted mask requirements to protect the general population from the disease, but also to avoid another general shutdown of the countless businesses that keep the economy humming.
Nonetheless, heated resistance to wearing face masks has emerged, sometimes taking a violent turn. In one bizarre twist, an Illinois woman complaining about other shoppers not wearing masks took her own mask off, threatened to cough on a store employee, and then allegedly attacked the employee. A viral video out of Washington state caught a woman berating pizza parlor staff, claiming that she did not have to comply with the shop’s mask policy because she enjoyed a “right” to her pizza. Things were more tragic in Michigan, where a man stabbed an elderly shopper who had approached him about not wearing a mask in a convenience store.
In the midst of such incidents, experts now predict a spike indeathscaused by COVID-19 across the Midwest. This surge will likely be acutely aggravated by anti-mask sentiment, which at times is even stoked by defiant public officials.
It was in this context that the Illinois legislature proposed SB 0471 to reclassify violence undertaken while opposing public health regulations from “simple battery” to “aggravated battery.” The principal Senate sponsor Kimberly Lightford said, “Our essential workers put their lives at risk for us to stay safe, and it is clear that we have to continue to do better to protect working class people with a renewed commitment to providing basic rights for everyone.”
It is hoped that this change will enhance protections for officials and employees—such as retail workers, servers, cashiers, and store clerks—who are on the front lines of enforcing face mask policies, social distancing regulations, and capacity limits for indoor spaces. Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law on August 7th and it took effect immediately.
What Is Battery?
We often hear the phrase “assault and battery” without much clarity on its meaning. Intentionally threatening someone’s safety without making physical contact with that person constitutes “assault” in Illinois, whereas “battery” must include physical contact. “Battery” is defined as intentionally causing physical harm to another person with no legitimate legal basis, whether to cause harm or simply to threaten.
Battery can rise to “aggravated” status depending on the location of the offense (such as public property or a place of worship), the status of the victim (such as the disabled, elderly, or emergency workers), or if it involves the use of items such as a firearm or a motor vehicle. Simple battery is classified as a misdemeanor in Illinois, whereas aggravated battery constitutes a felony criminal offense. Depending on the precise offense, aggravated battery can carry a hefty prison sentence.
What Can Business Owners Do?
Many Illinois businesses yearned for the shutdown order to be lifted so they could return to some semblance of normal business operations. Now that they have been able to re-open, most are trying to do so in a safe manner, to protect both patrons and staff. That involves enforcing the use of face masks, social distancing, and capacity limits.
Businesses striving to abide by proper public health regulations can take several steps to ensure altercations do not arise:
- Use your social media. If your patrons follow you on social media, use your platforms to remind them of your company’s safety regulations and proper decorum while visiting your business. You could even post a link to a news item about the new law with a message similar to this: “In light of this recent legislation, we would like to remind our patrons of our safety protocols and our expectations for respectful interactions with store employees.”
- Post signage. Greet patrons with immediate visual reminders of the need for a mask, social distancing, and capacity limits, as well as your expectations for appropriate conduct.
- Offer masks on site. In case a patron forgets to bring a mask, have masks on hand. That way, there can be no excuse not to wear one!
- Have a plan to accommodate. If a patron claims to have a disability that a face mask would aggravate, have a plan in place to provide a reasonable accommodation. For example, have the patron wait outside while a store clerk serves as a runner to collect the items the patron needs. Confer with your team to develop a sensible, reasonable, and effective plan.
- Give verbal reminders. If all else fails, feel free to gently but firmly remind patrons of public health regulations, as well as your own store rules. You can always remind them of the new penalties as well.
If businesses follow these simple steps, most customers will appreciate their foresight, thoughtfulness, and attentiveness to safety—and their continued patronage will help these businesses get back on track toward healthy margins.