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WIU LEJA Professors Share Challenges of Mask Enforcement Amid the Pandemic

June 23, 2021

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From June 22, 2021 Security Magazine

MACOMB/MOLINE, IL – As the "to mask or not to mask" debate rages on amidst the ongoing pandemic Western Illinois University Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA) Professor Dean Alexander, who also leads WIU's Homeland Security Research Program, and LEJA Professor Christopher Bitner have researched the challenges of mask enforcement. Their work was recently published in the June issue of Security magazine.

In May 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a significant change in its COVID-19 mask mandated policy. Namely, the CDC stated that fully vaccinated persons "can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance." According to Alexander and Bitner, besides encouraging fully-vaccinated individuals to resume activities "prior to the pandemic," the guideline will likely lessen tensions among proponents and opponents of COVID-19 related mask wearing that has gripped American society.

"While these guidelines may reduce the tensions regarding mask-wearing, it's most likely impossible the discord about wearing a mask, which is further aggravated by politicians, pundits, social media, fringe groups, politically active individuals and others," will dissipate completely," the two WIU LEJA professors noted. "And this discord continues to reach epic proportions despite research demonstrating that mask wearing has been a valuable tool in the fight against COVID-19. Isolated incidents of violent crimes arising from enforcement of masking measures are on the rise and are problematic."

As of May 2021, 24 U.S. states and territories had mask mandates – all with different protocols and guidelines -- compared to 27 in July 2020.

"As some businesses and other employers will not require workers and customers to prove they have been vaccinated before entering a premises, the mask-vaccination conundrum will rest, in part, on an honor system, which is inherently subject to abuse," Alexander and Bitner wrote. "For a time, some businesses, including fast food establishments, side-stepped the dilemma of enforcing mask wearing by in-person customers by offering only drive-thru services. Also, in some parts of the U.S., business and retail workers have expressed their concern over the removal of mask mandates as they perceive some unvaccinated customers will go forego mask, raising the risk of exposure to COVID-19."

According to Bitner and Alexander, mask enforcement has created even more political divisiveness, second-guessing and recriminations. The June 2021 revelation that Dr. Anthony Fauci wrote in a February 2020 email "that store-bought masks were 'really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection'" might further fuel a disdain for face coverings.

"Further complicating the business setting are firms offering different pricing for vaccinated/unvaccinated customers. For instance, in Florida in May 2021, a concert promoter, offered $18 tickets to anyone who is vaccinated and charge $999.99 for everyone else. Other firms set out another approach, such as: 'Fully Vaxxed? No need to mask! Not Vaxxed? Please mask,'" the authors added.

Alexander added that against this backdrop, it's necessary to look at mask wearing enforcement and violence at retail and service businesses spurred by the pandemic. While the number of people utilizing violence to enforce or avoid mask wearing has waned with the relaxation of mask mandates, it is indicative of citizens' inclination for violence.

"Particular anti-maskers flouted masking rules by ignoring requirements within privately owned businesses, and then when confronted, the antagonist refused to leave the premises or initiated verbal arguments, both of which are criminal acts," Bitner explained. "A person trespasses when refusing to leave a privately-owned place or engages in disorderly conduct when becoming verbally aggressive in public. Inevitably, some persons who resort to violence relative to mask wearing may concurrently suffer from mental health or other stressors that have been aggravated due to the pandemic."

According to one Canadian study, the five core features of COVID-19-related stress: fear of danger and contamination, fear of adverse socio-economic consequences, checking and reassurance seeking, xenophobia (discrimination against foreigners) and traumatic stress symptoms (for example, pandemic-related nightmares).

In July 2020, several industry associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation and others, wanted public sector-designed masking guidelines namely, a national mask standard, implemented locally, offers the surest way to protect public health and promote economic activity. The enforcement of government and self-initiated mask mandates at some businesses have created strain with small segments of their customer base, punctuated by occasional violence. For example, in July 2020, the Retail Industry Leaders Association expressed alarm over instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties. Also, that month, a survey of over 4,000 McDonald's employees found that 44% of respondents said they had been verbally or physically assaulted after confronting customers who weren't wearing masks.

"Some violence emanating from a refusal to wear a mask may not be tied with any ideological tenet, but rather a belief that no one - not government, industry, or an individual - can tell the person what to do," Alexander added. "Efforts to reduce such occurrences included an August 2020 Illinois law making the assault of a worker trying to enforce a public health guidance an aggravated battery."

The pair added that the pandemic only magnified an already fragile psyche among some Americans, whose tendency for violence occurs, incredibly, at the smallest slight.

"Sadly, it is likely our nation's enduring illness, resorting to violence all too frequently and unjustifiably, remains with its appending deadly toll even once the health risks from COVID-19 decline," Alexander and Bitner concluded.

Read the full article, including examples of mask-related incidents at


About the Authors

Alexander can be reached at He has been a member of the WIU School of LEJA since 2005. His former students work at police departments, government agencies (FBI, Department of Homeland Security and State Department) and risk management firms across the United States. His teaching, research and speaking activities encompass terrorism, security and legal issues, and he has lectured in 10 countries, including to law enforcement and military officials at North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), U.S. State Department and National Intelligence University events. Since publishing on terrorism in 1991, Alexander has written several books on the subject, including: Family Terror Networks (2019), The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington, 2015), Business Confronts Terrorism: Risks and Responses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Terrorism and Business: The Impact of September 11, 2001 (Transnational, 2002).

Bitner can be reached at He has been a member of the WIU School of LEJA since 2017. Bitner is a decorated law enforcement officer and military veteran with over 25 years of public service. Prior to joining WIU, he retired as a sergeant from a central Illinois municipal police department that served a community of approximately 34,000 citizens. He was also a combat medic in the USAF and Illinois ANG. Bitner lectures about police performance, workgroups, work-climate and leadership to local, county and state police officers; as well as, correctional officers in Illinois. His teaching experiences center around diversity and ethics, criminal law, homeland security, principles of terrorism, quantitative techniques, research methods, juvenile justice, juvenile delinquency, introduction to criminal justice, crime scene investigations and contemporary issues in policing.

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