For 64 days, Kevin Smith had shut down the Liberty Tree Tavern to comply with government orders. Now he was cleaning and disinfecting and removing stools to cut seating by three-quarters as he prepared to reopen the bar.
Plexiglass screens had gone up at the supermarket checkout. His neighbors in Elgin, Texas, were still wearing masks outside, even after it was no longer mandated by the county. He did not think such a response was necessary, he said, and he wanted to push back.
“Sorry, no mask allowed,” read the poster taped to the front door of his bar Friday. “Please bare with us thru the ridiculous fearful times.”
As statewide coronavirus orders are easing, many stores and restaurants nationwide have taken the opposite route: They have made face coverings a requirement, kicking out those who fail to comply and even going to court to enforce their directives.
Yet in the emergent culture war over masks, a handful of businesses – the Liberty Tree Tavern among them – are fashioning themselves as fortresses for the resistance.
“If we’re only allowed to be at 25% capacity, I want them to be 25% of people … that aren’t sheep,” Smith told the Washington Post. “Being scared all the time isn’t good for your health. It suppresses your immune system.”
At one Kentucky gas station, no one is allowed inside the adjacent convenience store if they are wearing a mask. Near Los Angeles, a flooring store encourages hugs and handshakes while prohibiting face coverings. The owner of a campground in rural Wisconsin vowed to treat clients sporting them inside facilities as she would “a robbery in progress.”
Scientific and medical experts agree that people should cover their faces in public to stop coronavirus, which has now killed at least 100,000 people in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that masks serve as an especially important safeguard in crowded spaces, where social distancing is impossible.
But Smith, who said he did not believe that the virus poses a serious threat, wanted to stir the pot.
For years, he has run his 60-seat bar, which occupies a converted alleyway on Elgin’s main drag, just as he pleases. Smoking is permitted during karaoke nights and performances by local talent, and beers are served in black-and-white koozies that say, “Come and drink it,” playing off the Texan battle flag.
A two-month shutdown from Texas officials had forced him to cancel a benefit concert for veterans and close down during the busy rush of customers that fly into nearby Austin for South by Southwest. For three weeks, a Bastrop County rule required him to wear a face mask in public or face up to 180 days in jail.
“Why are we having to do this?” he asked. “We’re not here to live in fear.”
A town of about 10,000 people, Elgin has reported 53 coronavirus infections and one of the two deaths in the county. Even as numbers in Texas are on the rise and local officials continue to encourage residents to cover their faces, Smith said he does not believe masks are necessary.
Bartenders need to see their customers’ faces to check IDs and make sure no one gets served too many drinks, he argued. Anyone with the virus, including those who are asymptomatic, should not be coming out to begin with. Besides, he asked: How are you supposed to down a beer with a bandanna stretched across your lips?
One regular at the Liberty Tree Tavern, 58-year old Charles Chamberlain, said he survived both stage 4 cancer and the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. He spent a full year living out of a Houston hospital, he told the Austin American-Statesman, before becoming so frustrated at his isolation that he cut the cancer treatment short.
“This quarantine … that’s not living, that’s existing,” he said. “Going to the bar, going to the lake, going swimming with your friends, barbecuing, fishing – that’s living.”
Smith, who also ranches cattle, said his customers have social distancing built into their rural lifestyle. For now, the regulars don’t seem to mind his request. No one had been kicked out yet for disobeying the poster, and one customer’s son, who has intellectual disabilities, was allowed to keep his mask on.
Chamberlain, who has been out to the Liberty Tree Tavern about three times since it reopened, plans to keep coming back.
“You should have a choice of what you want to do,” he told the Statesman. “If I get it, I get it. If I do, I’ll deal with that. You can’t live forever.”
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