Near the end of a hastily assembled press conference Thursday about a face-mask dispute that ended with a restaurant worker being stabbed, Police Chief Gary Ratliff almost pleaded with residents to follow rules businesses set or just take their business elsewhere.
Ratliff cautioned residents that police would charge people who refused to mask up or leave businesses with criminal trespass.
But it shouldn’t ever have to go that far, a tired Ratliff, called in from vacation on short notice, said.
“It’s just a very polarizing situation where some folks don’t believe that there should be masks and others do,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff’s call for de-escalation came as violent encounters over mask-wearing appear to be on the rise across the state and nation.
Although stabbings and shootings connected to the mask debate date back to the beginning of mask mandates, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to revoke a requirement to wear face coverings in public places might aggravate a bad situation, said Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University.
“Decisions by public leaders to lift mandates can have an important symbolic effect,” Parmet said. “Lifting the mandate messages that masks aren’t necessary.”
And people angry about having to wear masks can now blame local businesses and, by extension, employees charged with enforcing store rules, instead of the government, Parmet said.
“Thus, businesses are now forced to face the brunt of anger over masking,” she said. “This puts business owners and their employees in a terrible bind. They want to keep customers, and themselves, safe. But other customers are blaming them for mask requirements.”
Abbott on March 10 lifted statewide mandates requiring masks in public places but emphasized that businesses could decide on their own pandemic rules about requiring masks on their premises.
League City Mayor Pat Hallisey on Friday echoed many of Ratliff’s words, expressing disappointment at the fever pitch people have reached over mask- wearing.
Conflict over mask- wearing has become common enough that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September issued guidance about how to avoid workplace violence associated with COVID-19 prevention policies.
The guidance calls on businesses to clearly post pandemic-related policies, provide employee training on threat recognition and conflict resolution, install additional security systems and provide options to customers that minimize contact, among other guidelines.
Wendy Morgan, who owns The Admiralty, 2221 Strand St. in Galveston, was so concerned about possible encounters with customers after Abbott’s decision, she considered hiring security for her businesses, she said.
“It’s horrifying to me that some people feel so strongly about a piece of cloth,” she said.
Most people have been happy to comply with store policy requiring masks, however, she said. Employees have only had to ask about two people to leave.
While those customers haven’t been happy, they’ve left peacefully, Morgan said.
League City police still were searching Friday for James Henry Schulz, 53, in connection to the stabbing of a shift manager at Jack in the Box late Wednesday, Ratliff said.
An arrest warrant has been issued charging Schulz with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, Ratliff said. His bond is set at $40,000.
Schulz is accused of refusing to cooperate with store policy requiring him to wear a face mask as part of pandemic protocols, police said. Police accuse Schulz of confronting employees and then attacking the manager with a pocketknife.
Video of the incident shows the manager holding up a sign with store protocol on it as the suspect walks out of the store, before quickly returning while the manager is facing away and attacking him.
Schulz accused Jack in the Box employees of refusing to serve him because he was homeless, Ratliff said.
Schulz also recorded the exchange on his cell phone and told employees they would be hearing from his attorney, Ratliff said.
The manager suffered three stab wounds in the arm and upper torso, police said. He was transported to a hospital, treated and released.
Calls to the Jack in the Box seeking comment went unreturned Friday.
The incident was the first time in Ratliff’s memory that police officers were called in response to a mask-related issue, Ratliff said.
But it wasn’t the first in the county recently.
Texas City police Wednesday arrested a woman who Galveston police had the week before forcibly removed from a bank for refusing to wear a mask.
Terry Lynn Wright, 65, was arrested on two outstanding warrants after police were called to the Office Depot in Texas City about a woman refusing to wear a mask in the building or leave, police said.
Officers recognized Wright from news of the similar incident in Galveston, Texas City police said. Wright was arrested on Galveston warrants for trespassing and resisting arrest, police said. She was taken into custody without incident, police said.
Wright was not charged for trespassing at the office supply store, police said.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
Despite the recent incidents, League City Councilman Hank Dugie, chairman of the Galveston County COVID-19 Business Taskforce, on Friday said he agreed with Abbott’s decision to remove the statewide mask mandate.
“I think people should have the ability to make decisions for themselves,” Dugie said.
Dugie was one of six councilmen in League City who voted to reverse a decision city administrators made requiring masks in city facilities after the statewide order ended.
Dugie on Friday blamed disputes between customers and business owners on unclear communication about the consequences of bad actors.
“We need to have the police department communicate to businesses and let them know they will enforce criminal trespass,” Dugie said. “Any issue you have with a customer, give police a call.”
Galveston County residents live in a world full mostly of good people, but a handful of bad actors, Dugie said.
It’s all the community’s job to rally behind businesses, no matter what policies they follow, Dugie said.
“You can’t completely eliminate something like this,” Dugie said. “But you can enforce consequences and, as a community, be there for businesses. And let them know that these cases will not be tolerated.”