At almost exactly 11:35 a.m. on Nov. 28, approximately a dozen people filed into Dragonfly boutique on Main Street in downtown Boise. None of them wore face coverings despite a sign in front of the shop and a city-wide mask mandate. Owner Sierra Heavin-Hunter and her employee Rebecca Rogers told them to leave the store and picked up the phone to call Boise Police.
“Now, I’m not as freaked out,” Heavin-Hunter told Boise Weekly. “But all of us just felt totally flustered. … They were not going to listen to anything we said.”
Dragonfly was one of many businesses across the downtown corridor visited by anti-mask demonstrators on Small Business Saturday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year for downtown retailers. All of the visits by the demonstrators followed a similar pattern: A group of between three and a dozen unmasked people would enter the store with cameras. They would say that they had a right to be in the shops and that they couldn’t be removed for not wearing face masks. Finally, they would deliver a legal-looking document, a notice of liability.
Face masks have proven to be an effective measure to ward against the transmission of COVID-19, which has killed more than a quarter of a million people in the U.S. since March. The City of Trees has long had a face mask mandate in place, but on Nov. 23, an enforcement mechanism took effect, allowing businesses to call Boise Police’s non-emergency dispatch line to have non-compliant customers removed and potentially charged with trespassing.
The coverings are also controversial, with many perceiving requirements that they wear them in public places, restaurants or shops as an infringement on their rights. As of press time, Boise Weekly had been unable to reach those behind the actions on Small Business Saturday, but the notices of liability they handed out at every stop offer a glimpse into their motivation. The briefs describe the face mask mandate as in direct conflict with the explicit rights granted to individuals under the Idaho and U.S. constitutions, and outline a fee and fine system for businesses and governments that abridge those rights.
Rogers, Heavin-Hunter’s employee, called the police a second time after the demonstrators left the shop—just one of 19 calls BPD would receive about the anti-mask demonstrators. Later, officers connected with a group of them to discuss the mandate and their activities, but so far, no citations have been issued. After following up with businesses and prosecutors, BPD spokesperson Haley Williams wrote in an email that citations have not yet been taken off the table. When asked if the department knew about the group’s planned activities beforehand, she wrote that “BPD did not have a plan ahead of time that named businesses or locations.”
“I was discouraged,” Rogers told Boise Weekly about learning the police had been warned about the demonstrations. “There was no notice.”
The demonstrators were inside Dragonfly for under five minutes, but Heavin-Hunter said it felt like an eternity. A few blocks away at Rediscovered Books, they were in the store for less than a minute. Bookseller Rebecca Crosswhite said it was the “loud, booming voice” of a woman and her two companions that told her something was wrong. Then, she saw an American flag and a black flag.
“I just kept saying, ‘You need to leave,’” she said.
They did just that, and Crosswhite said she remembers the woman with the big voice saying “Ok, next!” as they walked out the door. The whole experience, she said, seemed scripted and performance-like. The staff at Rediscovered Books has a script of its own for customers who decline to wear masks that includes firm reminders that the coverings are required inside, and nobody may enter without one. The hard barrier to entry at the door, however, didn’t stop the visitors from leaving behind one of their telltale legal briefs and rattling the employees.
“I’ve been yelled at enough that it didn’t shake me up, but it shook up the staff,” Crosswhite said.
Minutes later, barrista Zach Sampo was behind the counter at Moss Coffee & Tea when half a dozen face mask-less people came into his shop. Again, they delivered their legal document and said a few words about the face mask rule before moving on to the next storefront. That’s when Sampo picked up the phone and dialed non-emergency dispatch. Later, he reflected on what has become a familiar problem in the age of COVID-19.
“They were just telling me they had a legal right to be here,” Sampo said, expressing disappointment with their disregard for public safety. “I was kind of annoyed at the fact that they didn’t seem to care.”