On January 13, as COVID-19 infections continued to skyrocket throughout the region and new, potentially more communicable strains of the virus began making headlines, L.A. City Council voted to ramp up mask enforcement in the city. In the weeks leading up to that meeting, organized groups of anti-maskers had “stormed” several public places throughout the city. Still, as of that council meeting, the Los Angeles Police Department hadn’t issued any citations to mask scofflaws, despite that the city’s safer-at-home order mandates masks in public places. In fact, the order states that violations can carry a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
In early January, groups of anti-maskers stormed Westfield Century City mall, a local Ralphs, and the high-end grocery store Erewhon in Beverly Grove with the goal of confronting essential workers and customers.
The mob in Century City attempted to force its way into several stores, prompting employees to lock their stores’ doors as maskless protestors heckled them from outside.
Johnathan Cabrera, an employee at the store UNTUCKit at Westfield Century City, was working when the anti-maskers descended on the mall.
“There were some protestors who were trying to walk toward our door,” he says. “We did shut the door on a woman who was approaching us, telling us that having customers wear masks is illegal.”
Police responded to the incident to intervene; two reports of battery were filed, but there were no arrests.
“The cops were there to make sure things wouldn’t escalate, and when an associate at Steve Madden had an altercation with the protestors, they did step in and try to push the protestors away from the store,” Cabrera says. “But the fact that the protestors were on private property without masks in a mall that’s pretty strict about people wearing masks, I was surprised that the cops even allowed that.”
Since that time, a public anti-masker Facebook group that’s celebrated the recent stormings and publicized several of the events in advance has also shared videos of maskless confrontations at an L.A. Trader Joe’s as well as a Lowes store.
Asked about its approach to the hordes, LAPD Public Information Officer Drake Madison says the department prefers a strategy of education and voluntary compliance when it comes to enforcing the mask order.
“In those rare instances when we contact someone not following the guidelines, officers will speak with those individuals and educate them on the guidelines established by the mayor,” Madison wrote in an email. “In those events where officers are unable to gain voluntary compliance, a supervisor will be requested to assist.”
Despite the anti-mask groups’ public use of social media to advertise their mandate-flouting gatherings, LAPD officer Madison says that the department does not track social media activity, opting instead to use “open-source material that is relevant to the department.”
Similar actions are continuing to take place throughout Southern California. On January 23, anti-maskers stormed a Dollar Tree in Lake Elsinore. The previous day, a post appeared on the local anti-mask Facebook page publicizing the action, reading, “Maskless Shopping: Bring cash, patriot friends, signs, and flags,” and including the store’s address and a specific time.
A Riverside County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson says the department received trespassing and disturbance complaints when the demonstrators refused to leave the store; the incident resulted in two arrests.
“The individuals failed to leave, being in violation of the trespassing warning that was given,” RCSD Sergeant Deanna Pecoraro wrote in an email. “Both were booked into custody for 602PC and later released on a citation to appear in court.”
District 11 City Councilman Mike Bonin has consistently pushed for tougher mask enforcement, and was behind the January 13 motion, which instructs the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to provide fines and penalties to people who refuse to mask up in an indoor public place when management has requested they do so, and for people who refuse to wear a mask while invading another individual’s personal space.
Bonin notes that the Westfield Century City demonstration largely inspired the motion.
“Crowds of maskless people came in, and they confronted employees, they confronted customers, they were asked to put on masks and they refused to,” Councilman Bonin told ABC 7. “We have other situations where people, maskless protesters, are going up to people, getting into people’s faces and deliberately using the fact that they are not wearing a mask as an act of aggression.”
Mall worker Cabrera shares the councilman’s concern over the anti-maskers’ aggression, and hopes they will eventually heed the advice of health and government officials.
“It’s been disheartening to see people who want L.A. to get back to normal, but they’re not taking the precautions to help make that process a little bit faster,” Cabrera says. “I hope they open their eyes and hearts to see COVID for what it is. It’s not a joke. It’s serious, and if they really want things to get back to normal, then they should follow the state and county regulations.”