The concept behind "Mask Free Shopping: Takin' It to the Streets," a video by documentarian Larry Cappetto, is simple: A group of eleven people enter two stores in Grand Junction and begin shopping just as they would have prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — without facial coverings, unlike all the other customers. In the first store, a Natural Grocers outlet, a number of them are allowed to make purchases. At the second, a Bed Bath & Beyond branch, they're told they won't be served because they're maskless, and they leave without causing a scene. They're invariably polite but clearly disappointed.
The video can be viewed exclusively on Cappetto's website (see it by clicking here), and it's clearly sympathetic to the project's participants, several of whom are members of a group called Free Mesa County. As the organization's Facebook page notes, "Our purpose is to remove the unnecessary restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic" — or it did before the address was made unavailable. (You can learn more about Free Mesa County in this January report from Grand Junction-based KJCT.)
"Mask Free Shopping" remains accessible, however, and it's hardly a polemic. There's no anger or invective, and as a result, it offers an inside look at a philosophy that's typically derided in the mainstream media. People who watch it from start to finish may feel the folks on their screen are dangerous, naive, confused or a combination of all three — but they'll know more about an opinion shared by millions of people across the country than they did before the footage began to unspool.
A Grand Junction area resident, Cappetto was bitten by the filmmaking bug after seeing the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan and relating to its depiction of men serving their country, just as his father and uncle did on foreign battlefields decades earlier. Afterward, he made it his personal mission to document their stories, in their own words, for a series of videos collected on the "Voices of History" YouTube channel. He's also a musician, and his guitar and piano playing can be heard in the scores of many clips.
At first blush, Cappetto's decision to delve into the anti-mask movement would seem like a change in focus. But he thinks the two subjects are very much related. "I feel like we are in a war right now — and there are casualties of war," he says. "We're fighting within our own country for many of the freedoms our veterans fought for, and that's not good. We need to be united, not divided. That's my goal in life, my philosophy — that we need to be united."
The shopping trip seen in the video took place last Saturday, February 6, and while the experience was fascinating, Cappetto says it also left him deeply saddened: "I found myself joining a small group of people who enjoy shopping without wearing masks, and they feel like it's difficult to shop alone because of the mask mandates. And it's interesting to me why some people are so deeply convicted about wearing a mask and others won't."
In years past, he recalls, "I'd see someone wearing a mask in a grocery store and feel sorry for them, thinking that they must have some medical problem. But now our society is full of masks, and anyone who doesn't wear one is cast as the lone wolf or the outcast. And going into those stores, we felt like we were being singled out all the time, like we were the ones looked at as abnormal. That bothered me so deeply. I just felt very out of place, very uncomfortable — felt humiliated because I knew people were looking at us. I know some of them went home that day and said to their family, 'Guess what? I was at a store and I saw people without a mask!' And my heart dropped at the thought, because a little less than a year ago, that wasn't the case."
In the months after COVID-19 arrived in the state, Natural Grocers, a homegrown chain that currently has 41 stores in Colorado, told its employees that, for safety reasons, they should not ask patrons without masks to put one on or leave. After Westword published a post about this approach in November, company representatives insisted that the policy had been changed over the summer and mask usage was now required — but most of the shoppers in Cappetto's video are able to buy items despite the absence of facial coverings. (We supplied a copy of the video to Natural Grocers reps; they have not responded to our request for comment.)
Cappetto doesn't like to wear a mask — he says he finds it claustrophobic — and he believes that people should have the freedom to don one or not, despite ample evidence that the disease can be transmitted much more easily if faces aren't properly covered. He says he also has questions about whether all of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 were really caused by the virus, and doubts that vaccines will allow society to return to normal within a matter of months; he thinks the approval process was rushed and says he won't consider being inoculated for a year or so, when we know more about possible side effects. Moreover, he fears that masks will become a permanent part of our culture no matter what happens, much to our collective detriment.
There's a religious aspect to Cappetto's opinions, too. He quotes from the biblical verse Exodus 34:34: "But whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would remove the veil until he came out. And when he came out, he would tell the Israelites what he had been commanded, and the Israelites would see that the face of Moses was radiant. So Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD." In other words, man should not be masked before God.
"I am totally okay with people's right to choose a mask," Cappetto emphasizes, but he thinks that those who prefer not to do so shouldn't be ostracized.
"It was difficult for me to go into those stores — a very difficult experience for me," he concludes. "But I'm a storyteller. And this is a story that needs to be told."