‘They think they can do what they like’: COVID-19 rules spark flashpoints, expose fault lines

Mary Fenelon is not shy about telling people they should be wearing a mask and socially distancing during the pandemic.

The 77-year-old from Doncaster East chided a barista for wearing his mask around his neck during lockdown and scolded those congregating near the cafe for not adhering to the COVID-19 rules.

Mary Fenelon has been called an “interfering bitch” for reminding people they should be wearing masks.Credit:Simon Schluter

She’s been told to mind her own business, that she’s an “interfering bitch”.

“I’m not kidding, it’s awful,” Fenelon says. “I thought ‘I just can’t go out for a coffee anymore, I am going to end up in a fight’.”

Fenelon says it’s the ‘I’m entitled to do what I like’ attitude that gets to her.

“It’s because we don’t have any cases out this way that they think they can do what they like.”

She jokes that she can’t help saying something, she’s an ex-teacher: “I do it because of the arrogance of people and the fact that they feel they’re above the law.”

Fenelon is not alone in facing opprobrium when raising concerns about a lack of compliance with mandatory mask rules.

Stephen Mills, from Blackburn, says he was bullied by a belligerent bar licensee and ordered to leave the hotel after Mills asked him politely to cover his nose.

“You must love [Premier] Dan [Andrews],” was the attendant’s parting shot to Mills’ wife, when she remarked on the number of patrons not wearing masks.

Diners, shoppers and pedestrians fill Centre Place post-lockdown on Thursday.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Mills says he is frustrated the government has been strong on rules but weak on enforcement.

Across the globe, measures by governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have exposed tensions between public safety and personal liberties.

“There are differing beliefs in our community about the level of restrictions that we should collectively undergo to avoid infection,” says Professor Kathy Douglas, dean of the graduate school of business and law at RMIT and an expert in conflict and dispute resolution.

“So when people see things playing out in the community that they don’t agree with, they have an emotional reaction.”

The easing of lockdown restrictions in Britain last year revealed stark fault lines: more than half of the population said they felt angry with others because of their behaviour during the pandemic.

Nearly one in five of 2237 British residents polled had confronted someone for not staying a sufficient distance away from others or being in too large a group, according to research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The study, by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, also found 8 per cent said they had confronted someone for not wearing a face mask.

Meanwhile, a small minority of people had confronted others for following the rules too closely.

Professor Kathy Douglas is an expert in conflict and dispute resolution.Credit:Jason South

Belief in the conspiracy theory that the government only wants people to wear face masks as a way of controlling them was associated with confronting someone for sticking to the rules too closely, with 21 per cent of believers saying they had done so.

In Victoria, disputes over COVID-19 rules are continuing to play out on social media and in public, with many perceiving mask rules are being flouted more during the latest outbreak of the virus.

Douglas copped derogatory comments from a couple of young men while exercising in her local area, paradoxically because she was wearing a mask.

“It was a ‘take that off, what are you doing with that?’ yobbo type thing.”

She says mask wearing is a very visual example of whether you are compliant with COVID-19 rules. “What it does is confront another person with your approach, and if they don’t have the same value belief they might react.”

In July last year, when Victoria saw the number of new COVID-19 cases surge to more than 700 a day, Douglas believes there was wider acceptance of strict precautionary measures.

But now, with a low number of cases, she sees more people questioning Victoria’s approach, which is creating flashpoints in the community over adherence to mask and social distancing rules.

“Because of those differing views, you don’t have a harmonious view of how to address the pandemic,” Douglas says. “At the start, there was more of a coherent view. I think that’s changing over time.”

Darren Robinson is the administrator of Residents in St Kilda, a Facebook page for residents to talk about how to make life better for all people in St Kilda.

Robinson says posts on the page – which has 8700 members – are normally about lost keys and cats, tradies and locals helping each other.



But lately he has become concerned about a growing community vigilantism.

“We have rejected a number of posts wanting to shame people who are in public without masks on,” Robinson felt compelled to post last week on the Residents in St Kilda page.

“Whilst I support and comply with all mandated rules on masks, we are not a site which will publish people’s faces who are walking, sitting down or doing whatever without a mask. If you feel strongly about these people, please approach them respectfully and ask them to put on masks. Make a complaint to the police. If you don’t have a valid reason for not wearing a mask, I would encourage you to comply for the benefit of all.”

Robinson says social media has become a mechanism for shaming people and calling out what others see as non-conforming behaviour.

“Generally I would say it’s a reflection of the division and politicisation of opinion,” he says. “It’s all been played out over whether or not you wear a mask. It’s significantly politically aligned but it’s really driving a wedge in the community. The reality is that some people have medical exemptions. Everyone needs to understand we are all in this together.”

Tim Boyce has chronic asthma and bronchiectasis, a disease in which there is scarring of the lungs, which makes it difficult for him to clear his chest of mucus.

He says he would be medically exempt, but chooses to wear a mask, in part because he is vulnerable to catching COVID-19 but also because of the scorn he would attract for not wearing one.

Boyce experienced this when running without a mask during lockdown, even though the guidelines stipulated that people engaging in strenuous exercise were not required to wear one.

“The best way for me to naturally clear my chest is cardio exercise and when I wasn’t able to go to the gym it was really the only way for me to do it, so it was genuinely for medical purposes,” Boyce, from Forest Hill, says.

“I stopped counting the number of ‘selfish c—’ or ‘f— you’ shouts I received, even though I carefully planned a route that allowed social distancing.”

Boyce feels the abuse got worse the longer Victoria was in lockdown and the angrier people got. “I just think that in general people feel they are being let down by both sides of politics, and have to take matters into their own hands.”

At their heart, public confrontations over COVID-19 rules are driven by worry, according to Dr Claire Hooker, a senior lecturer in medical humanities at the University of Sydney.

“You may be an older person who is worried about being exposed to COVID-19 for the sake of your health, but you may also be defending your view that people ought to put themselves out in small ways to keep others safe,” she says.

“The flipside is somebody who abuses another person for wearing a mask is worried that their capacity to self-determine … and to act freely, is being taken from them.”

Hooker says non-judgemental communication – asking why someone isn’t wearing a mask rather than telling them to wear one – can be a useful tool.

She suggests finding common ground: “You might say, ’we both agree that it’s important to think critically about the information we’re getting from the media, I get that, but I am immuno-compromised and scared, so, just in case, I would appreciate it if you could wear a mask on the train.”

Hooker points to The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks, an article about male anti-maskers by Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, that was published in The Atlantic last year.

Marcus wrote that the public health messaging around masks in the United States had been muddled and confusing – as in Australia, the US government initially did not recommend all people wear face masks in public.

She also acknowledged that when former president Donald Trump mocked mask-wearers for appearing weak, and saw face coverings as a political statement against him, it was no surprise that some Americans were loudly declining to wear them.

Marcus later tweeted that she was contacted by men grateful to read something that didn’t shame or demonise them and willing to listen to her views on why it might be worth wearing a mask.

“They said they felt ridiculous wearing a mask when there were few people around, like outdoors or in a spacious store,” Marcus tweeted. “When I agreed that masking isn’t as important in certain settings, they became more amenable to wearing one when it matters most.”

Hooker says we are all likely to be affected by unconscious bias when we make judgements about people’s pandemic behaviour.

“We know that people of colour in less advantaged communities were disproportionately targeted by the police for not conforming to social distancing orders back in about May last year whereas, in fact, most of the actual flouting of COVID social distancing orders was occurring in exactly the opposite suburbs, in well-heeled, white suburbs,” she says.

“Knowing that, let’s work harder to think: ‘What’s driving this person in this situation?’.”

Like many people at some point during the pandemic, Hooker recalls finding herself in a supermarket without a mask.

“The people who addressed that the best with me indicated to me that they didn’t think I’m a terrible person because I didn’t have my mask at that moment. They saw that I might have just forgotten it, or not be used to it, or was feeling pressured for time,” Hooker says.

“I really appreciate all those people who extended that little bit of grace to me and I try and extend that to other people.”

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