LOS ANGELES, California — At first, the attacks directed at Hugo’s Tacos were mainly childish comments made by people who appeared frustrated that they were asked to wear a mask while at the restaurant.
But about a month ago, the comments escalated into screams.
Customers at the popular Los Angeles spot threw drinks and other objects at cashiers, Hugo’s Tacos CEO told CNN. They called Hugo’s Taco Stand’s mask rule “stupid” and yelled at the primarily Latino staff to “Go back to where you came from.”
One of the owners tracked the number of attacks last Thursday, and realized it was an hourly onslaught. On Sunday, following this realization, Hugo’s Tacos announced it is temporarily closing down its two locations in Los Angeles.
“Our taco stands are exhausted by the constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks,” Hugo’s Tacos wrote in an Instagram post. “A mask isn’t symbolic of anything other than our desire to keep our staff healthy. Both of our locations are going to take a break and recharge.”
The move was unprecedented for the institution, which has operated for 15 years.
But the decision comes as Covid-19 cases continue to increase across the United States, with more than 2.5 million cases of coronavirus nationwide and at least 125,928 deaths as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Amid the pandemic, the act of wearing a mask to protect others has become a political and cultural flashpoint.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone “should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public” to reduce transmission and slow the spread of the coronavirus, which is highly contagious. But some argue that the act of wearing a mask is political, and that wearing one infringes on their civil liberties.
Hugo’s Tacos CEO Bill Kohne called the attacks on his employees “schoolyard defiance” and one that is “agnostic of party,” noting that his two stands are located in the neighborhoods of Atwater Village and Studio City, two liberal communities within Los Angeles.
“It’s a mistake to think of this problem as defined by red or blue,” Kohne told CNN. “We’re shades of grey. It’s general defiance, a ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ and ‘this is my personal choice.'”
Customer defiance over mask rules now commonplace
Customer defiance over mask rules have become commonplace, with many posting videos of so-called “Karens” on social media reacting angrily toward mask wearers.
Many viewed a video of a woman at Trader Joe’s in North Hollywood, California, throw down her grocery basket after being asked to wear a mask, according to CNN affiliate ABC7.
The woman, who wouldn’t give her name to reporters, claims she had a “breathing problem” and her doctor told her she couldn’t wear a mask. The alleged respiratory problem didn’t prevent the woman from screaming obscenities at masked grocery store employees.
The woman said she called a different Trader Joe’s store and was given permission by the manager to come in and shop without a facial covering, ABC7 reported. But she alleges she mistakenly went to the North Hollywood location, where the manager told her she could her buy groceries without a mask on that day only.
“I did what any normal human being, a woman, would do if she was being harassed by a man, not knowing if he’s a crazy man, so I started yelling in self defense,” she told reporters, ABC7 reported.
Most recently, a Starbucks barista in San Diego who was publicly shamed by a customer after asking her to wear a face mask has received nearly $80,000 in virtual tips after a Facebook post that criticized him went viral.
California has a statewide face covering rule requiring people to wear a mask anywhere they come within six feet of others. People with medical conditions who can’t wear masks are exempt from wearing a face covering.
Despite state and local rules to wear masks in public and the scientific research that shows masks lower the risk of transmission of Covid-19, there has been mixed messaging by national leaders.
President Donald Trump has refused to explicitly recommend Americans wear masks and has not generally worn one in public appearances.
In an interview that aired on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said that people should follow local rules on masks, saying “every state has a unique situation.”
But Kohne said he thinks it’s a mistake to peg mask defiance as partisan defiance.
Hugo’s Taco Stands, which has followed the city of Los Angeles’ guidance on masks for months, described compliance of the mask request as “always murky.”
The anger is across demographics, he said.
“As much as Karens are a problem, the Kevins are just as bad,” he said. “While it’s generally White people who take it to being a racist thing, the belief that masks are a hoax are across the board.”
Attacks taking a toll on employees
Kohne said the attacks have taken a cumulative toll on his workers who already struggle with the safety of coming into work.
While Hugo’s sorts how to make his employees financially whole during the closure, the company set up a GoFundMe for its employees after community requests to set up a fundraising site.
Many commented in Hugo’s Tacos closing post, expressing their support to the institution.
“THANK YOU for putting your employer’s mental health above the dollar,” one user wrote in a comment. “Donated & will continue to support.”
“Thank you for keeping your staff safe,” wrote another. “Looking forward to being masked and spending some money there when you reopen.”
Kohne said his focus is on comforting and protecting his employees right now. But he’s also preparing for when he will have to deal with a public rage that he believes is getting worse.
“It may be partially due to the length of confinement and the feeling people need to break out of a cage,” he said. “It’s a feeling that’s getting worse. A sense that ‘you can’t tell me what to do.'”