After her county issued a mask mandate last month, a North Texas mother was denied service and harassed by employees for refusing to wear a mask due to a chronic condition, for which the county and statewide mandate provide exemptions. The store manager seemingly had no knowledge of these exemptions, raising questions as to how effectively government officials have communicated such exemptions to businesses and the public.
Two weeks ago, in response to the Chinese coronavirus, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley—spokesman for the Tarrant County Commissioners Court—issued a mask mandate. On July 2, a similar statewide mandate was issued. These mandates were issued even though recoveries from the virus far outweigh deaths in the state’s most populous counties.
Section 4 of the county mandate reads in part:
“The requirement of a face covering does not apply if covering the nose and mouth poses a significant mental or physical health risk to the individual.”
In Section 2 of the statewide mask mandate, it reads that the mandate does not apply to:
“[A]ny person with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.”
On June 29, Karen Starnes—a married mother of three and a trained nurse—went to an Uptown Cheapskate clothing store in Watauga, Texas. Starnes was going to return sandals she had purchased from the store the day before, which she said broke shortly after trying them on at home.
Upon entering the store, she was asked to wear a mask. She refused, citing “a chronic condition that exempts her from wearing a mask.”
Instead of abiding by county and statewide exemptions, Starnes says the employees refused her service and accused her of not caring for others.
“That can’t be further from the truth, because I care about all lives,” she replied. “I care about all people that have chronic conditions and cannot wear a mask. It poses a risk to their health.”
She added she was “heartbroken and grieved” for those who had died from the coronavirus.
When she asked to speak to the store owner, she was told the owner instructed the employees not to serve her.
Starnes claimed there had been no issue the day before when she purchased the sandals. An employee later claimed on social media that management had disciplined the employees who hadn’t forced Starnes to wear a mask on that day.
Starnes began livestreaming her encounter, which shows other customers harassing her for not wearing a mask. She tried explaining that she has a “chronic condition,” which is considered an exemption from the government mandates.
The other customers accused her of lying and pulling a political stunt. Eventually, an employee told Starnes to leave the building. She refused.
The business called the local police, who arrived and advised Starnes that if she refused to leave the building when asked, she would be arrested for criminal trespassing.
“I’m not here for the mask; I’m here because they’ve asked you to leave,” the officer said. Starnes eventually complied and left the building, escorted by police. She was not arrested.
Texas Scorecard contacted the store and spoke with Daren, who identified himself as the manager. “The city emailed us in regard to the fact that we have to have every individual in our store with a mask, dictated by the county ordinance,” he said. When asked if he was aware of the health exemption in the county mandate, Daren replied in part: “I can’t really tell you that, sir.”
When asked about more details of the mandate, he denied that the City of Watauga issued a mandate different from the county one. “The statement was that the county issued a statement saying that everyone requires face covering.”
“There is no way a small retailer would be able to determine whether or not there may be medical conditions or not,” he added. “So, we basically go on the generic value of what we’ve been told.” The manager also expressed frustration with continually changing government mandates, ranging from shutdown orders to how many people can be in their store.
“All we want to do is sell clothes. We don’t want to be political,” he said. “We’re a very small business.”
When asked what statement he would like to provide to members of the mental and physically challenged community, Daren said:
“We are currently changing our policies to accommodate the situation.”
But the problems for Starnes didn’t end there. She was harassed online by the owner of a different Uptown Cheapskate franchise, as well as a manager of Kid to Kid—another brand that is under Uptown Cheapskate’s parent company, BaseCamp Franchising.
Another Kid to Kid manager shared Starnes’ livestream with the comment, “LOL I don’t like people.”
Texas Scorecard sent inquiries to the headquarters of the Uptown Cheapskate franchise regarding the situation, employee and franchise owner behavior, and whether government officials fully explained the mask mandates and accompanying exemptions.
No response was received by publication time.
Starnes also faced online bullying, sexual harassment, and racial attacks on social media for not wearing a mask due to her chronic condition.
“I felt attacked and demeaned, like I wasn’t an equal deserving of dignity or a right not to be harmed,” Starnes told Texas Scorecard. “I wasn’t treated like my life or health mattered. My heart felt crushed by the hate.”
Starnes added that she has not yet been contacted by anyone from Uptown Cheapskate.
Texans concerned about members of the mentally and physically challenged community being unduly harassed and not allowed to use their exemptions may contact their state representative, state senator, and Gov. Greg Abbott.
If you or anyone you know have had a similar experience from government mandates in response to the coronavirus, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected]
This article has been updated since publication.