An incident at Ukiah Natural Foods this last Saturday has brought the tension between COVID-19 protocols, local businesses, and citizen activists playing out across the nation home to roost.
In brief, a group of approximately 20 protestors entered Ukiah Natural Foods refusing to wear masks, a policy strictly enforced by the store’s management. The protestors proceeded to bag bulk goods, fruits, veggies, and other foods then approached the cashier to purchase the items. The cashiers adamantly refused to sell the items, the protestors ardently pushed back, and finally, Ukiah Police Department was contacted. After approximately 20 minutes, a UPD officer escorted the group out of the store.
Lori Rosenberg, the general manager of Ukiah Natural Foods, told us Saturday’s visit was the second time the group that has branded themselves the Mendocino Patriots visited the location to stand up against masking protocols.
She said that on Saturday, a group of “approximately 24” protestors entered Ukiah Natural Foods unmasked and refused to wear one when offered complimentary face coverings by the store. Ukiah Natural Foods has a strict masking requirement and their policy is no one will be served if they refuse to comply with the masking requirement.
Multiple protestors proceeded to push shopping carts around the store, picking up food items, some out of the store’s bulk bins as they went. Before lining up to purchase their items, the group was told many times they would not be served without masks, and as they got in line and found themselves not served, “they got very verbal with my staff and others that were shopping at the store.” Rosenberg said the protestors referred to staff as Nazis and claimed they were being discriminated against.
A video published on the Mendocino Patriots website provides a 16-minute glimpse into Ukiah Natural Foods that day. Here are some of the notable moments and exchanges that captured the tone of that day.
An employee was standing in front of a check stand and told one of the protestors “I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a mask on we won’t ring you up.” The protestor responded by presenting a document they claimed to be the Mendocino County Public Health Order from Dr. Andy Coren. “You don’t have to wear one if you have a medical condition,” the protestor read to the cashier. The employee responded, “Well, you have to wear one inside.” The protestor retorted, “so you like to discriminate against Americans?” Wanting to communicate that the protestor had other options to acquire groceries, the cashier offered, “We have online shopping.” The protestor said, “I don’t like online shopping.”
Another exchange caught on film portrayed a protestor explaining to an employee that due to a medical condition, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides her an exemption from the masking requirements. The employee says directly to the protestor, “I am refusing you service.” A fellow protestor was looking on when he replied to the employee, “It’s time to stand up for yourself, stand up for your rights. You’re going to be wearing that stinky face diaper for the rest of your life.”
(It is worth stating, the Department of Justice has stated, “The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”)
A large portion of the video captured the protestors standing in a line that went nowhere because cashiers continued to refuse service. While waiting, the protestors peppered employees with questions, claiming discrimination, and at one point characterizing an employee as a “little bit of Nazi here.”
At one point, five protestors were in line, offering their takes on masking to a singular employee. The employee stood, not reacting, while protestors described the mask rule as a farce and stated “racial discrimination was legal at one point. And then people stood up. That’s what we’re doing.”
One interesting interaction occurred when one of the shoppers actually told a protestor she “got it” and said the only reason she was wearing a mask was others. “Someday, we have to take the power back,” the shopper told the protestor.
Reflecting on the experience, Rosenberg told us she does not understand why these protestors would take their grievances about COVID-19 protocols out on a local business like Ukiah Natural Foods. “We feel they are barking up the wrong tree.” She asked, “Why don’t they protest the people making these policies?
The presence of the protestors left Rosenberg’s staff feeling “uncomfortable”, “violated”, and “threatened” and she expressed pride in her employees for doing an “awesome job of not getting plugged into the name-calling.” Many shoppers that day were upset from the experience, Roseberg told us, and had contacted the store describing their experience.
Having gone through this experience twice, this situation prompted Ukiah Natural Food to codify a specific protocol for handling situations like this in the future.
Rosenberg did want to correct some falsehoods that had been reported to her regarding coverage of the event. She said unequivocally no one was physically hurt as a result of the interactions.
Another falsehood Roseberg wanted to address was Ukiah Police Department’s response time, saying they responded within 20 minutes of being contacted by Ukiah Natural Foods, much faster than some claims she had heard.
Ukiah Natural Foods did experience the loss of some of their goods as a result of the protest, Rosenberg explained that loss was a result of their “stance of refusing service.” She said the incident called for employees’ to prioritize ridding the store of the protestors and not address the food involved.
A blog post on the Mendocino Patriots’ website described the protest from their perspective. They claim twenty-one of their group arrived at the co-op and “grabbed a basket and proceeded to shop.”
Immediately, the protestors described encountering a woman “who followed us to try and give us masks. We politely declined and kept shopping.” The blog post claims that one of the protestors “had their item literally snatched out of his hand at the register by the store manager.”
The post on the Mendocino Patriots’ site states that after the store employees “opted to restock our items and dump our water rather than check us out”, one half of the group went outside to display signs while “other[s] stood calmly at the register to check out.”
An employee reportedly said the protestors were vandalizing and spilling the merchandise, the blogpost addressed the accusation saying that, in fact, a child had opened a bag of chips “intended for purchase” and the Co-op employees “dumped out water that a customer intended to pay for.”
The blogpost said that when UPD arrived, “The officer was professional and we all spoke to him outside. We were not cited because we did not break any laws.”
The blog post detailed that the protestors actually conducted similar demonstrations at Ukiah’s Michael’s Craft Store before their arrival at Ukiah Natural Food and afterward, Black Oak Coffee.
Ukiah Police Department Lieutenant Andrew Phillips told us UPD officers received several calls last Saturday regarding “a group of customers who refused to wear masks inside the business. The initial call for service came in at 2:39 PM, an Officer was on scene by 2:59 and the call was completed by 3:17 PM.”
Responding to media coverage that characterized UPD’s response as “slow,” Lieutenant Phillips said, “While there is always room for improvement, I would not characterize this response as “slow” given the type of call this was (a disturbance).” He went on to state, “Had this call [been] one involving an assault or a danger to life and it took UPD twenty minutes to arrive on scene, I would characterize that as a slow response.”
Upon arrival to the scene, Lieutenant Phillips said UPD was “not made aware of any destruction of property and the group who were the reason for the call to UPD was cooperative with the Officer who arrived.”
Soon after UPD Officers arrived, “A resolution was achieved, the involved parties were provided with information as to how to better handle these types of incidents in the future and the Officer left the scene,” Lieutenant Phillips explained.
Some of the callers that reached out to UPD that day, Lieutenant Phillips said, “claimed intimidation, but could not describe anything other than the people being unmasked in the store and that they were talking with other customers/staff.” These sorts of concerns “do not rise to a criminal level.”
Phillips stated that the store reported to UPD that the protestors “were eating food that they would not be able to pay for” but the “employee’s reasoning as to why the customers would be unable to pay, was simply because the store would not allow them to pay for the merchandise.” This does not rise to criminal theft because “it was the store who was not permitting the customer to pay for the merchandise.”
The only crime that could have been established by the protestors, Lieutenant Phillips said, was trespass, “and even this did not apply as the customers willingly left upon request by the Officer.”
If any readers are left unclear as to what actually happened that day in Ukiah Natural Foods consider the following perspective offered by UPD’s Lieutenant Phillips: “with any incident, there are multiple and often differing accounts of what happened, based on what each party or person experiences and what information is provided during the