Even with Utah’s coronavirus infections spiking to alarming levels, masks continue to be a contentious matter as evidenced Saturday at a Utah County farmers market, where a vendor says he was thrown out for wearing a mask and encouraging others to do so.
Like most of Utah, people in Utah County are under a mandate to wear masks in public, which public health experts say reduces the chances of disease transmission.
So RJ Walker didn’t think handing out masks would be controversial while working a table Saturday at the Lehi Farmers Market. He’s been doing that all summer and fall at Utah farmers markets, where he staffs tables as a brand ambassador, inviting passersby to play games and win prizes.
But the proprietors of the Lehi market took exception to him handing out masks Saturday, according to a 21-part thread Walker posted on Twitter, describing the confrontation that ended with his ejection from the market.
“I had been to that Lehi farmers market before and haven’t had a problem. I’ve set up with same rules and everything,” said Walker, a resident of Cottonwood Heights. “It was when I started handing out free masks that the proprietorship saw me and then they freaked out.”
Contacted by phone Saturday, market proprietor Dorothy Durrant denied she had Walker thrown out for wearing a mask.
“He was removed for being rude to customers,” said Durrant, who operates the open-air market on private property at 7431 N. 8000 West in Lehi.
“He wasn’t happy that we had people who were here not wearing masks,” she said. “He was throwing things at people. We don’t care if you wear a mask or not [at the market]. We pride ourselves on having a loving atmosphere here.”
Walker denied he was rude or disrespectful to anyone, but he did insist that anyone playing the games on his table do so wearing masks, which he provided for free. He tossed masks to those willing to accept one, he said.
Farmers markets are among the only public venues open during the pandemic and Walker has worked many. He said mask wearing has been the norm at almost all, but not at the Lehi market, where many vendors and customers were mask-free Saturday.
This despite Gov. Gary Herbert’s plea Friday — as officials announced a record 1,960 new cases of COVID-19 in Utah — that everyone wear masks when they are around other people.
“Now is not the time to let down your guard,” the governor said.
Asked why she wasn’t insisting her vendors and guests wear masks at the Lehi market, Durrant declined to respond unless the reporter came to the market to speak with her in person.
Walker’s troubles at the Lehi market Saturday began about an hour after he set up his game table, which displayed a sign that read, “Masks on to play.” When an unmasked family of four approached to play a spinning-wheel game, he asked them to don masks. The family complied and accepted the masks he provided.
Durrant said she felt Walker was less than polite and confronted him after the family left the table with their prizes. Walker contends it was Durrant and then her husband who were less than congenial.
“She says, ‘You’re forcing people to wear masks,’” Walker said. “And I was like, ‘No if they don’t want to wear a mask, they just don’t get [a] free prize.’ At this booth, we follow the health department guidelines and if they don’t, they can go to a different booth. It’s weird that they [the Durrants] have got this whole personal freedom narrative, but only if it follows their rules.”
According to Walker, Durrant said masks were “useless” and she didn’t want him to wear one. She walked away and returned with her husband and another man, ordering him off the property, even though Walker’s company had paid for the space.
“He [the husband] called me a ‘socialist’ and accused me of spreading ‘propaganda’ by handing out masks,” Walker wrote in his Twitter thread. “I told him that my company follows health department guidelines and he said ‘well I disagree with your health department guidelines,’ as if the health department is up for debate.”
With the man threatening to report him to the police for “trespassing,” Walker packed up his table and left.
He set up at another market in Lehi and handed out masks without a fuss.