The grocery manager, the anti-maskers, and the one thing he wouldn’t say (opinion)


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Here are a few things he did say, in his Chicago accent, at the Gardiner Market in Park County, Montana, to the small minority of customers who either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the conspicuous sign that said “NO MASK. NO SERVICE. NO EXCEPTIONS.”

“Masks are required to be in the store,” he told them, politely but firmly.

“You can tell us what you want and we’ll bring it out to you,” he said to the minuscule fraction who had genuinely forgotten their masks.

“I don’t care,” he said to the man who presented a card, which purported to be from a fictitious government agency that claimed to make him exempt from the rules.

This job was never easy, and in July it got even harder. It was no longer enough for John Steenwyk to restock the firewood or show tourists the bear spray. Now, as a 44-year-old assistant manager at the market, John would have to enforce the governor’s new directive requiring masks in public indoor spaces. John worked in retail. Now he also worked in law enforcement.

“Tell me where it says that,” he said, referring to the US Constitution, when an anti-masker deemed the mask order unconstitutional.

“Well, yeah, but where does it say that?” he said when the man insisted.

“Okay, my name’s John,” he said, after the man started videotaping and asked for his name to give to his attorney.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” John said to quite a few people who wouldn’t listen to anything else.

John’s boss, Scott Demaree, dealt with the worst anti-masker of the summer. According to Scott, she spat on him, knocked the phone from his hands, and threatened to run him over. Scott felt terrible for his employees, the conscripted mask cops, especially John.

“You can’t be in the store without a mask,” John said, and Scott noticed that John wasn’t as funny as he used to be.

“Leave,” John said, and Scott noticed John laboring to get through his shift.

“You’re out,” John said, and Scott thought John might quit any day.

“Out,” John said on the worst day yet, August 22, to a guy swearing loudly about “the Democratic flu.” John was thinking about his mother, Karen Steenwyk, who often called from Michigan to ask about the wildlife in Montana, such as the elk he saw outside his window the other night, eating leaves off a tree.

Karen and Robert Steenwyk both died of cardiopulmonary arrest due to pneumonia brought on by Covid-19.

“You’re done,” John told the man, about three months after he got the phone call from his father, Robert Steenwyk, who loved trains, and used to take young John on quests to find abandoned railroads. His father was calling to say that John’s mother was in the hospital, and John’s father thought he was sick too. Which he was.

“Out,” John said again, slightly less than three months after he and his wife, Katy, raced toward Michigan, a little too late, and pulled off the highway near the Yellowstone River so he could say goodbye to his father via FaceTime, and tell his father he loved him, and wonder if his father could hear him, and then Katy took the wheel for a while, because John was in no condition to drive.

“Get out,” John said to the man at the cash register, on August 22, which would have been John’s mother’s 72nd birthday, if she hadn’t died two days after her husband of 49 years, not long after John reached the hospital in Michigan to see her one last time.

He put on gloves and goggles and two masks and walked to her bedside. “I’ll miss you,” he said, and “Thanks for everything,” and “You get to see Dad again.” The death certificates said Robert and Karen Steenwyk both died of cardiopulmonary arrest, due to acute hypoxic respiratory failure, due to pneumonia brought on by Covid-19.

It is rare these days for anyone to change anyone else’s mind about anything. And so most Americans, including John, have stopped trying. The anti-masker left the store. As usual, John left this thought unspoken: If someone somewhere had worn a mask, maybe my parents would be alive.

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