Livestreams and Punches: Front-Line Workers Suffer From Anti-Mask Conspiracies

Retail workers like those at grocery stores or coffee shops are the ones feeling the real world effects of the conspiracies running rampant during the pandemic.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
April 6, 2021, 2:14pm
The squat man with the grey hair started his livestream well before entering the supermarket owned by a man he would punch in the face.
Kevin J Johnston punching the store owner in the face. Photo via Facebook video screenshot. 

The squat man with the grey hair started his livestream well before entering the supermarket owned by a man he would punch in the face. 

“I don’t want the bar of soap that I use (for my face) to be on his crotch,” he says, pointing to one of the three lackeys accompanying him. “So we are going to get a bar of soap.”

The three accompanying Kevin J. Johnston laugh at his dick joke and jabber excitedly to one another as they walk towards the No Frills supermarket in Dawson Creek, in northeastern British Columbia, on March 25. Johnston, a man considered semi-popular among Canada’s far-right and known slightly more broadly for his relentless, often repulsive media stunts (like offering his followers $1,000 to go film Muslim students at a local high school), was in the remote city for an anti-mask rally. 

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As the anti-mask crew enters the store, ignoring the workers telling them to wear masks, he starts ranting about mask regulations while searching for the soap. When he approaches the cashier, a young worker wearing a mask politely asks him to leave. The anti-masker seizes upon the moment and launches into full-blown victim mode against the low-wage workers forced to put up with his bullshit.

“I have all these teenagers here telling me I have to leave (the soap) behind,” he says for the camera. 

It’s not until the store’s owner approaches him that the man, dropping a $5 bill near a cashier, finally decides to leave, soap in hand. Outside he continues to harass the employees by knocking on the glass, and declaring a young worker who looks at the camera a “horrible human being” and “the worst girl in Canada, as of today.” 

The store owner comes out to the parking lot to get the man’s licence plate to call the police. The anti-maskers, who are all still congregating there, yell at the owner. Johnston puts his phone right in the owner’s face, who smacks it away.

That’s when the anti-masker leader punches the owner in the face. 

The case is a microcosm of the pandemic world: the people who have to bear the brunt of the immense anger stoked by COVID-19 misinformation are not politicians or the Jeff Bezoses and Bill Gates of the world but instead are front-line workers who are being dehumanized, berated, assaulted, and in some cases, killed, while trying to enforce mask policies. Furthermore, when deciding on a staging ground, anti-mask provocateurs often gravitate towards areas with low-wage workers whom they treat as pawns in their stunts.

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VICE World News spoke to several front-line workers who said they’ve become the de facto enforcers of their employer’s mask and social distancing policy. For the most part, these new responsibilities weren’t accompanied by a pay increase or any additional workplace protections. 

Kolby, a young woman who worked as a greeter at an organic grocery store, was given the unenviable task of handing out masks to those attempting to enter the store without one. She said she was filled with dread whenever she saw someone approaching the store without a mask.

“One woman flipped out on me... She had a full-on tantrum in the parking lot screaming at me, like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot,’ and flipped me off while she was driving away,” said Kolby, who asked VICE World News not to use her last name because of fear of reprisal from the workplace. “It was just always an anxiety when I saw someone without a mask on like, ‘Oh, are they going to flip out on me or are they going to do something even worse than before?’” 

Last year Clare Hammonds and Jasmine Kerrissey, two researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Labour Center, surveyed over 2,300 front-line workers across six states during the virus’ summer surge. 

“The anxiety and stress that people talked about was just so palpable,” Hammonds told VICE World News. “How stressful it felt to go to a job where you felt unsafe, and then on top of that, you’re confronted with this animosity and anger of customers who are taking it out on you.” 

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Almost half of the workers they spoke to said they had to deal with people refusing to comply with mask rules. Their research showed that as the income of the workers rose so did the compliance level of the anti-maskers. While only 39 percent of workers who earned over $21 an hour reported having to deal with resistance to mask and social distancing policy, that number jumps to 60 percent for workers earning under $15 an hour. The researchers also found employers offered little to no support for these workers.

Unsurprisingly the survey indicated that stress was incredibly high for workers on the front lines. One respondee said that “politics and mask policy” has made customers “furious” and employees “have been threatened, spit on, and screamed at.” 

“When I ask customers to wear a mask, as they are required to do, I am often met with animosity and anger,” wrote another respondent. “They tell me I’m infringing on their rights. I’ve had abusive phone calls from people saying our policy goes against the constitution. And we’re not being paid anything extra or being treated with any care by our employers.

“We’re considered an essential business and we’re being paid like we’re high school kids living at home and this money is for fun. My life is in danger and I’m being paid like I’m getting an allowance. I cry before and after work and then sit in a deep depression wondering what I can do to get out of this hell.” 

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A casino worker reported that when he asked customers to wear a mask they started yelling about their rights, told him to “fuck off,” and spat on him. One even started to undo his pants in an attempt to “piss” on the worker. 

Another respondee said his company is pressing charges after two customers got so irate they attacked his coworkers and “smashed (their) equipment and property.” Others reported getting verbally assaulted and pushed.

This was Hammond and Kerrissey’s second study of this nature and they found the aggression and anger expressed towards workers is increasing as the pandemic drags on. Hammonds said that one thing that could help these workers would be for there to be clear and uniform rules from the government about social distancing and mask regulations. 

Several requests for comment sent to Loblaws, who own No Frills, about what kind of protections they’ve put in place for their front-line workers went unanswered. The owner also did not reply to a request for comment.

Kurt Phillips, a board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, follows and writes about the anti-mask movement. He said he contacted the Dawson Creek No Frills to offer a message of support and was told by the person who answered the phone that the store was “fielding call after call after call of threats” after the incident.

“One of the big rationales for anti-maskers is that this is hurting small businesses and hurting the workforce,” said Phillips. “And yet their actions show that it’s obvious that they couldn’t possibly care any less about the workers.”

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Last week an anti-mask pastor in Calgary, who got international headlines after police went to his church, organized a rally against a grocery store that was asking their customers to wear masks. At the rally, a large crowd screamed at the workers who didn’t allow them into the store, wore armbands similar to ones worn by Jews during the Nazi regime, and gave speeches in the parking lot about tyranny. The pastor even told one attendee they were going to “shut down their business.” Multiple attendees of the event livestreamed it to Facebook and Instagram for their anti-masker audience. 

It’s not just anger driving some of these anti-maskers to dehumanize front-line workers but a thirst for attention. Provocateurs start a livestream before going into stores with the hope that they can goad a worker into kicking them out or, at the very least, chastise them on camera for not following the store’s rules, so they can play the part of a victim. Some of these videos significantly expand a provocateur’s profile and allow them access to a larger audience (which they will most likely attempt to solicit donations from). 

“It’s very performative. They often make sure they look to places that do enforce the masked bylaws so that they can create a scene. It’s great for fundraising,” said Phillips. “The man who punched the worker at the No Frills... His followers are convinced he’s the real victim and he’s fundraising off it.”

The anti-maskers and the streamers who intentionally cause scenes in these stores rarely, if ever, face consequences. However, that wasn’t the case for Johnston. 

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After he punches the owner, he claims he was actually the one assaulted, and attempts to “citizen arrest” the man by, well, loudly declaring he was citizen-arresting him.

“I have to touch him,” he says, gingerly touching the owner’s elbow, who is on the phone with actual police “He’s now in custody. You’re not going anywhere.” 

Much to the chagrin of the anti-masker and his followers, when the cops arrive they immediately arrest him—not the owner, and force him into the police vehicle, while the other two anti-maskers continue to livestream. Johnston was eventually charged with assault. 

Before the livestream cuts out, one of the anti-maskers makes a promise to the employees of the grocery store.

“We’ll be back.” 

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.