New Yorkers love bodegas, their hyper-localized corner stores that are points of both convenience and community. Bodegas stayed open through the worst of the pandemic, providing neighborhoods with a much-needed sense of normalcy – as long as shoppers wore their masks. But this week, Mayor Eric Adams proposed a major reversal: telling shopkeepers not to let in any customers wearing a face covering.
Adams, a former cop who has cultivated a tough-on-crime reputation during his time as mayor, said that potential thieves had exploited the ubiquity of face coverings as a way to hide their identity. He cited an unknown assailant who wore a face mask and Tyvek suit when he killed a 67 year-old Manhattan deli worker on 3 March.
“We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops: do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask,” the mayor said during a radio interview. “Once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they desire to do so.”
Though the mayor’s comments do not amount to a new rule, disability rights advocates were quick to point out that an official policy banning face coverings would violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Matthew Cortland, a lawyer who specializes in disability and healthcare, told NPR the idea was a “morally repugnant and unlawful policy initiative”.
But the United Bodegas of America, a group that represents the wellbeing of over 15,000 shop owners, backed Adams’ comments. According to the New York Times, instances of petit larcenies like shoplifting have increased by about 5% compared with the same period last year. Though crime in the city has declined overall, the group remains fearful of violence against shopkeepers.
Fernando Mateo, the United Bodegas spokesperson, told the Guardian that the group might turn to a more controversial crime-fighting tactic if it didn’t get more help from state lawmakers. “If things don’t turn around, we may resort to trying to get permits for bodega owners to carry weapons to defend themselves,” he said. “If someone has a gun and goes into a business that also has a gun, they may think twice about what they want to do.”
What about people who have legitimate health concerns and cannot take their masks off? “That’s no excuse,” Mateo said. “We’re talking about coming into your store, pulling your mask off, and putting it back on. That takes less than 30 seconds. I stand by the Americans with Disabilities Act 100%, but saving someone else’s life in a 30-second move where you take your mask down isn’t going to make a difference one way or another.”
Mateo said that bodega regulars should not have to worry about their face coverings. “We’re not afraid of our normal customers, the mom and pops, who come in with a mask on,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable to ask for people to take their mask off so a security system can see your identity, and then you can put it back on.”
Hoodies have long been associated with the racist trope of criminality among Black men. Mateo said he did not believe the new rule would lead to instances of racial profiling. “It’s not assuming anything when someone comes into your business and all you can see is their eyes,” he said. “There’s something not right with that. It’s not racial profiling, it’s an etiquette kind of thing. There is a dress code to enter certain places.
“If this were a white industry, you could accuse the white guy of [racial profiling],” Mateo added. “But you can’t accuse people of color who have lived through racism that they’re racially profiling.” (Bodegas have deep roots in Puerto Rican communities; Yemeni Americans own approximately half of all bodegas.)
Mateo, whose father owned a Lower East Side bodega in the 1970s, ran an unsuccessful Republican campaign in the 2021 mayoral race. He said the United Bodegas of America was a non-partisan group, though it is a staunch critic of New York’s bail reform law, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The group said the law had led to a rise in shoplifting.
Along with arming workers, United Bodegas has also pitched a New York version of Florida’s stand your ground law, which allows for the use of deadly force if a person believes their life to be in danger. This law – which George Zimmerman’s defense team successfully cited during his trial for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – has come under fire for the way it has been used to justify the killing of Black men.
Mateo acknowledges that giving workers weapons is not an ideal solution. “I don’t want anyone to think that bodega owners are reckless, because they’re not,” he said. “Bodegas are like community centers; they’re safe havens where people running away from danger go. We want to crack down on the people with bad intent, those who will cover 95% of their face.”
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