Town’s sole grocery store closes for a day after customer conflicts over masks, verbal abuse toward staff

Nation & World News

MIDDLEBURGH, N.Y. (WTEN) – A small town’s only grocery store shut down for a day as it struggles to enforce New York’s mask mandate amid customer conflicts and verbal abuse of employees. The owner of Valley Market in Middleburgh kept the doors closed Sunday to make a statement after conflicts about people not wearing masks reached a breaking point. 

“We get a lot of attitude, a lot of people that just don’t understand,” said employee Tracey Johnson.

Owner Geanine Eisel says some customers are putting her small business in jeopardy.

“I’ve had someone come in telling me that I could be shut down, that I could get a $10,000 dollar fine,” she said. 

Though an executive order allows businesses to deny entry to customers not wearing masks, Eisel doesn’t feel equipped to kick people out, and believes her 16,000 square foot building can allow those who say they can’t “medically tolerate” a mask to socially distance and for her employees to take breaks.

“If they’re in the aisle and there’s no one in the aisle, I let them pull it down and breathe a little bit, but unfortunately, some of the people they see that and they think, ‘they’re not wearing a mask,’ and they call immediately to the state to complain instead of just, ‘ok, you don’t have a mask on I’m going to keep my 6, 8, 10 feet,” she said.

A conflict between a mask-wearing customer and two customers not wearing masks pushed Eisel to the brink Saturday. She closed the store early and kept it closed Sunday, reopening Monday.

“I felt like I needed to make a statement to say how important this is and what this would be like if we did close,” she said.

Whether they’re stocking the shelves, at the checkout, or at the meat counter, some grocery store workers say they’ve been enduring verbal abuse from frustrated customers. 

“We get a little bit of harassment here and there, and it’s been very, very stressful,” said Johnson, one of the store’s 32 employees.

“If there was a better understanding and everybody just kind of followed the rules, everything would be ok,” she said.

Eisel says the vast majority of customers do follow the rules, but she wants the others to think about how their actions could impact a small business.

“I want people to be respectful,” she said.  

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