ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Though it's an official order of state government, three months into the statewide mask order, a broad variance in ground-level observance has turned routine runs for staples into a gauntlet of anxiety and resentment.

That's the uptake from a request sent out by Forum News Service's NEWSMD team for stories from shoppers dreading the need to dodge the maskless in order to grab a gallon of milk, pair of wipers or article of clothing.

The question was easy enough: Has the low use of masks caused you to avoid a business, place of housing or other venue within Minnesota? If so, drop us a line. You could remain anonymous.

The offer of anonymity was taken by some, passed on by others. We wanted candor in a charged environment, one where the risk of social retaliation is high. The goal was to get people talking about the experience of navigating two opposing messages: Unmasked strangers could kill you, and unmasked strangers are just the way it is.

Mask use in the state of Minnesota is higher than the national average by some measures, lower by others. But it's nowhere near that of high-compliance states on the coasts. This is notable because it's not something you get to choose to abide. Officially, the state order leaves little room for scofflaws or their hosts in retail.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"According to the executive order, businesses must require that all people, including their workers, customers, and visitors, wear face coverings," writes Jen Gates of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in an email, "... and take reasonable steps to enforce the requirement."

Readers tell us that stores have simply looked the other way. This is despite the fact that stores have been specifically advised to refuse service to customers who enter without a face covering. Refusing service is considered one of the order's "best practices." Providing service to the maskless is in no way required. "A business is not required," as the order says, "to allow entry to a customer or visitor not wearing a face covering."

In other words, people with medical exceptions can claim they are exempt, but stores do not have to serve them inside.

Though it is a problem of health within public places of business, the state addresses lax mask enforcement as a worker safety issue. Between March and September, MNOSHA has conducted 135 onsite COVID-19 related workplace safety inspections, leading to 71 citations.

These appear to have been insufficient to change the experience at ground level for customers in retail.

The great divide

Readers wrote about businesses large and small. A recurring theme was an exasperation with shop owners who have yet to appreciate how strongly the unmasked are upsetting some of their loyal customers.

"Have [we] avoided businesses due to no-mask policy? The answer for my family is a definite yes," wrote a reader from Bemidji. "It seems that local small businesses, the ones that suffer the most at this time, tend to also be the places where mask use by employees and customers is the lowest. I could name at least five locally owned businesses we won’t use for any purpose, be it delivery or take out food, hardware needs and groceries due to masking issues. Even those that 'comply' with a mask on but down around the nose or chin get a hard pass."

"We will check out a business before going in," the reader wrote, "and if mask compliance isn’t happening, our business goes elsewhere. This usually ends up being bigger retail that are enforcing mask use by customers and employees as policy. It’s sad ... I would like to help local businesses stay open, but refusal to be part of the solution to a health crisis prohibits it."

"The sad fact is that masking became politically divided before it could be adopted as a measure to ensure the common good."

A reader from Brainerd concurred.

"Masks are completely politicized in a way that will not end well for the area. Too many are intent on ignoring health guidelines. I don't want to be anywhere near them ... Why be in a place where careless people gather? Where's it a badge of honor to ignore medical advice? That is not freedom. That is lunacy."

Not everyone feels the same in lake country. When news of this project hit the Facebook page of the Brainerd Dispatch, it quickly drew over 400 comments and 126 reactions, the latter evenly split between support and opposition. Of the latter, those who participated were derided as "snitches" more than once, with other critics saying it would hurt small business. (For the record, Forum News Service launched the question, not the Brainerd Dispatch.)

"Nice. Get people to turn in their neighbors," one person wrote. "Pretty sure this happened in the past, and that didn't work out too well." But supporters came forward as well.

"I wish we had better buy-in in this community," one person wrote. "You don’t see me freaking out," as another person put it, "when they told me to put my pants on before going into Target."

Minnesotans are torn over whether to say something to offending customers. Some are all elbows, making no apology about it.

"I'm tired of having to confront people," wrote Michael Daigh of St. Paul, who recalled a confrontation while waiting to check-out at a suburban-metro big box. "Of course there just had to be that one dude. I don't seek them out, or appoint myself the mask police, but if they're in a radius of me, like at checkout today, then I say something."

"I said 'hey, special little guy (he was not that little) I'm going to need you to back up.'... Everyone around did the Minnesota thing of staring at their shoes. The poor cashiers did nothing, but did apologize to me when it was my turn."

Others decide they are not going back.

Joshua Houdek of the Twin Cities recently visited a popular supply store chain on a busy Sunday to outfit his daughter with a hat and gloves. "I was astonished with how many shoppers were unmasked," he wrote. "Some signage, but no employees or security enforcing the indoor mask mandate. Sad. I will not go back."

Convenience store chains were a frequent source of distress.

"I try to avoid going into the gas station-convenience stores here in Stewartville," wrote Jon Bernhardt. He named two gas station chains that "always have at least one customer without a mask and nothing is said, even to repeat non-wearers."

"I just pay at pump and now won’t go in to buy bread, bananas or milk," wrote Stephanie Snow of Rochester, who says that her relative with an underlying condition feels unappreciated by the hands-off policy in the chain.

In this way, businesses may think they are "staying neutral" in the face of mask-defiant, when the perception is that they are undermining the compliant.

"I won’t support a business who does not have the health of their customers and their families as a priority at this time," writes a reader named Becky from Alexandria. "Furthermore, if they are choosing to be so bold as to push the no-mask agenda, then I will not choose to do business with them when the pandemic is over either."

A Rochester clinician recently walked out of a popular chain "after observing rampant disregard for proper masking."

"I spoke with the manager about it and she made it quite clear that [they] were not interested in making any effort to enforce or even encourage mask-wearing," he wrote. "I told her I would spend my money at another store up in The Cities, because I can't risk bringing COVID-19 into my patients and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, nor my family."

James in Bemidji wrote to describe a similar frustration in northern Minnesota.

"I had to dodge singles and groups of unmasked people roaming the aisles. The store is not that big and aisles are narrow in places, so avoiding people was difficult. Staff members did nothing that I could see to gain compliance."

Later, when he emailed to ask why there were so many people without face coverings, the store's reply was, "We are just trying to create an environment to help both sides and to keep everyone safe.”

"I wasn’t aware that there were 'both sides' to this matter of law," James replies.

Even self care has been disrupted.

"One place I'm avoiding due to antimaskers are in-person AA meetings," wrote Kimberly from Duluth. "Members insist the clubs are private and refuse to wear them." Kimberly added that her job as a janitor requires her to work alongside several tradesmen who eschew masks.

"I have informed my supervisor that I'm not feeling at all safe in my environment," she writes. "Nothing's changed. I was told we don't have mask police, so I should just do the basics. ... I used to love my job. Now I have to take an anxiety pill to go in the door."

Clarification: This story was clarified at 9 a.m. Nov. 1 to highlight that masking compliance is handled through MNOSHA, and state worker safety officials have issued 71 citations for COVID-19 related offenses between March and September.