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Mask altercations can turn violent. Here's how to de-escalate them safely

Experts including a former FBI hostage negotiator share tips on how to talk to anti-maskers.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images stock

It was a video seen around the world: On July 29, a woman using a cane was left hospitalized with a broken knee after she was thrown to the ground during an altercation over masks in a New Jersey Staples store.

Margot Kagan, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer and liver failure, received a life-saving organ transplant back in March. Her condition leaves her vulnerable to severe illness if she contracts COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“Because of my transplant, I’m on immunosuppressants,” Kagan told TODAY by phone. “I was literally told when I left the hospital that if I get COVID-19, I’d be back in the hospital and I’d probably die.”

While she was using a fax machine at Staples in Hackensack, Kagan said she noticed a woman at the machine across from her was wearing her mask below her mouth. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing face masks over the nose and mouth to prevent the spread of the virus, and many states — including New Jersey — have mandated masks inside retail stores.) Kagan decided to say something to the woman, but doing so angered her and left Kagan in need of knee surgery (the other woman was charged with second-degree aggravated assault last week).

“It was the strangest feeling in the world and it made me scared,” Kagan said. “You know, you never think you’re going to be that person."

For many businesses and retailers across the United States, confrontations over masks have become all too familiar. There is substantial evidence that suggests wearing a mask helps slow the spread of COVID-19, but some Americans feel that being told to do so infringes on their personal liberties. As a result, many employees have found themselves on the front lines of the mask debate.

If you find yourself involved in or witness to such a conflict, there are ways to de-escalate some of these situations safely. We talked to a former hostage negotiator, a lawyer and other experts for their best tips in the age of viral Karen and Ken videos.

Educate yourself about mask policies.

The Michigan Retailers Association, the largest state retail association in the nation, has been working to equip businesses with the tools they need to stay safe by offering webinars on de-escalation and violence in the workplace. Spokesperson Meegan Holland said mask orders can be hard to enforce, so employees need to understand the nuances that exist within different policies.

“You really need to know your stuff,” Holland told TODAY. “If you don't educate yourself, you're going to dig a hole.”

For instance, Steven Wells, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP, said people should know there is nothing in the Bill of Rights or the U.S. Constitution that says individuals have a right to be free from a government-ordered mask mandate.

“To put it bluntly, there's no right in the Constitution that gives people the right to infect or endanger their fellow Americans by acting recklessly, selfishly or like an adolescent,” Wells said.

He said businesses are also within their right to refuse someone service if they do not wear a mask but would be unable to do so on account of something like race, gender or religion. However, since mask orders are written at a state level, businesses might be instructed to handle exemptions differently. For instance, if someone has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, Wells said businesses in some states may be obligated to allow them to enter, but others could be granted the discretion to make their own decisions.

"I think this would be a state-by-state analysis," he said, "and it would depend very much on what the law is that exempts people from wearing masks."

'Kill them with kindness.'

Even if people are made aware of their responsibilities under the law, many Americans are choosing not to wear a mask because they feel passionate about making a strong personal or political statement.

Gary Noesner, former chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, said that when dealing with individuals who are upset about masks, it’s important to make a genuine effort to listen to their point of view.

“I think you have to acknowledge that when people are angry and vocalizing that, they're basically saying to you they want to be heard,” Noesner, who served as the chief FBI negotiator in the Waco, Texas, standoff in 1993, told TODAY. “You just have to try to kill them with kindness.”

For instance, a Costco employee has been widely praised online for the way he handled a mask confrontation that took place in May. In a clip that went viral on Twitter, the employee calmly explained why the customer needed to leave the store, but he also made an effort to tell him to "have a great day" several times.

Deflect responsibility to policies, and offer alternatives.

Noesner said it can be helpful for employees to deflect responsibility onto the company or the state that created the mask policy in question, all while remaining calm and thoughtfully addressing the individual.

Once a customer is made aware of the company or the state's policy, Holland said that it is important to offer them alternative options.

"So it could be, 'Hey, that's OK if you don't want to wear a face mask in the store. I can serve you through curbside delivery or something along those lines,'" she said.

Case in point: One manager at a Gelson's grocery store in Dana Point, California, tried to offer alternatives to a woman who did not want to wear a mask. In a viral clip that has been viewed more than 1 million times, he offers to shop for her, though she ultimately refused the offer.

Put your health and safety first.

On Aug. 9, a 17-year old employee at a theme park in Pennsylvania was hit in the face after he tried to remind a couple to wear their masks. Police said the teen sustained injuries to the teeth and jaw, and he will have to undergo surgery.

If a situation continues to escalate to the point where violence seems likely, Noesner said it is best to try and seek out help from a manager or the police.

“Your job isn't worth you getting in a fight or getting seriously injured,” he said. “Don’t endanger your life because of somebody’s stupid behavior.”

Keep your emotions in check.

Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, said one of the biggest mistakes people make when engaging in a confrontation is to push back right away.

“What we've learned over the years is that if the worker is able to not argue back and really step aside and just listen and acknowledge, then they are in control of the situation,” Dinkin said. “It's going to throw the customer off balance because they're not going to be expecting someone to actually listen to their perspective.”

Use 'I' statements (not 'you').

Dinkin said it is also best to try to use “I” statements while engaging in these confrontations because people are generally not receptive to demands or accusations.

In a video that went viral on Twitter, an employee at a Planet Fitness in Ohio used "I" statements to explain why he asked one customer to wear a mask.

Ultimately, the woman was not very receptive, but Noesner said there is no guarantee that people will modify their behavior. Even so, he said treating others with kindness and respect is the approach that might yield some positive results.

“They’re probably not going to have an epiphany and say, ‘Oh, you’re right, I’ll go put on a mask,’ but they may walk away without ratcheting up the temperature and getting even worse,” Noesner said. “That’s a small victory in and of itself.”