- An argument over masks in a Lowe’s store in June resulted in one man spitting on the other, a lawsuit alleges.
- John Birke said another shopper spat on him four times after Birke confronted him about not wearing a mask inside.
- Birke filed a $US20 million lawsuit against Lowe’s in mid-July.
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A Lowe’s shopper is suing the home-improvement giant, seeking at least $US20 million, alleging that another customer spat on him during an argument over the chain’s mask policy.
John Birke visited a Lowe’s store in West Hills, California, around noon on June 28, donning a Joe Biden 2020 face mask. California was 10 days into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandatory mask order for indoor public spaces.
The suit, filed in mid-July, said Birke was looking to purchase an elevated toilet seat because his wife, a 72-year-old cancer survivor with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was about to undergo hip-replacement surgery. It also said Birke had lived with asthma for over 56 years.
As he shopped, Birke confronted a man who wasn’t wearing a face covering. When the man refused to wear one, Birke asked two Lowe’s employees to intervene, but they declined, and Birke told the man he was calling the police and dialed 911, the lawsuit said.
The maskless shopper then spat in Birke’s face four times “in rapid succession,” the lawsuit said, adding that while a nearby employee said, “You just spit in his face,” nobody helped.
The suit took issue with Lowe’s claim that its shoppers’ health “is our priority during the COVID-19 virus.”
Lowe’s declined to comment to Business Insider because the incident is the subject of pending litigation.
Lowe’s said earlier this summer that customers would be asked to wear masks. “For the safety of everyone in our stores, we ask that customers wear masks, and to make this new standard less restrictive, we will make masks available to those who need them,” CEO Marvin Ellison said in a statement on July 17.
However, citing concerns about employees’ safety, the home-improvement giant has also told its workers to avoid confrontations with anti-mask shoppers.
“We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks, so we are consistently requesting that customers wear masks for the safety of everyone in our stores,” a Lowe’s representative previously said in a statement to Business Insider.
A current Lowe’s employee told Business Insider that if a customer refuses to don a mask or a facial covering, “we are supposed to say thank you and let them continue.”
Like other national retailers, Lowe’s is grappling with a fierce – sometimes violent – subset of shoppers who refuse to wear masks. Retail workers have found themselves in the middle of a heated culture war over coronavirus-related policies.
Companies like Office Depot have released memos breaking down how workers can safely confront shoppers flouting mask rules or social-distancing guidelines. Hundreds of McDonald’s workers have reported being verbally or physically assaulted by anti-mask diners. In May, a Family Dollar security guard, Calvin Munerlyn, 43, was shot and killed in Flint, Michigan, after an argument over masks.
Birke told Business Insider that he tested negative for COVID-19 two weeks after the incident. His complaint said Lowe’s lack of mask enforcement in its stores could “affect a substantial number of persons that might be dangerously exposed to COVID-19.”
Birke said he thought the hyperpartisan divide over wearing masks was partly to blame, though he added that the man who spat on him – who wasn’t identified in the lawsuit – never invoked politics.
“I do think it’s like a skirmish in a civil war in this country,” he told Business Insider. “I find it really revolting, and to think that the idea of protecting other people has become such a partisan political issue?”
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