Robberies involving suspects donning medical-style face masks have exploded across the country, prompting some stores to close early to keep employees safe.
Normally, walking into a store wearing a mask anywhere in the United States would arouse suspicion, but because face-coverings are required in many areas to help curb the spread of COVID-19, criminals using surgical masks and gloves to disguise their faces and fingerprints are able to blend in with other shoppers.
According to police in Santa Ana, California, robberies have increased by a staggering 50 percent since the lock-down orders there were put in place.
Elias Khawan owns a gas station in Santa Ana that was recently robbed at gunpoint.
“We’re sitting here not knowing who’s going to walk through that door,” Khawan told CBSN Los Angeles.
The thieves, who did not initially raise the clerk’s suspicion due to local orders for face coverings in light of the coronavirus pandemic, took off in a silver Nissan Altima last Friday at 2 a.m.
Khawan said he has never seen anything like it the 17 years he’s run his Santa Ana gas station and convenience store. He said local face covering requirements put his staff in danger.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “I mean, I know we have to take certain measures because of what’s happening with COVID-19, but it’s the perfect script or manual for a robber — the mask, the sunshade and a hoodie. You don’t know who’s coming, who’s walking in.”
Khawan and his staff feel so unsafe that he has cut his hours from being open all night to closing at 10 p.m., a 25% hit to his bottom line. He has also added signs at his store prohibiting hoodies, backpacks and handbags.
“They’re very scared,” he said. “I have two employees who said, ‘No, we don’t want to work at nighttime.’”
In King County Washington this week, the Sheriff’s Office also said that it is seeing more cases where thieves are wearing medical masks during robberies and burglaries.
“The way that it is now, everybody has masks and the criminals are trying to take advantage of it in hopes that they won’t be identified as quickly or identified at all,” said Sgt. Ryan Abbott.
Police in Georgia say a man wearing a surgical mask knocked off six banks in three counties.
In New York City, a couple obtained face masks and gloves and used them while robbing multiple businesses at gunpoint.
When Solimar Rodriguez Gonzalez messaged her stepfather on Facebook last month asking for surgical masks and gloves, he assumed she wanted them—like just about everyone else in the world right now—for protection against coronavirus.
Gonzalez and her boyfriend, William Rosario Lopez, were finally arrested on April 9 after an eight-day crime spree.
Shortly before 10pm on March 18, a clerk at a Connecticut gas station was cleaning a coffee pot when Lopez, wearing a surgical mask and blue latex gloves, entered the store. According to a criminal complaint filed in Connecticut federal court, Lopez pointed a silver gun at the clerk, grabbed him by the collar, and marched him over to the cash register, hitting him in the back of the head with the weapon along the way. After the terrified clerk handed over $1,188, Lopez fled in a dark-colored Honda Accord.
Because wearing a mask in public can be seen as an act of intimidation and/or a threat of violence, it’s illegal to do so in many cities, although exceptions are made for special occasions like Mardi Gras and Halloween. Obviously, because COVID-19 is seen as a greater threat, those laws are not currently being enforced.
A former FBI agent said that the increased anonymity the masks provide has encouraged more people to engage in criminal behavior.
“Being anonymized has always been associated with more deviant and criminal behavior,” ranging from bank robberies to the Ku Klux Klan, the former agent, Bryanna Fox, told WTOP News.
Fox said studies have found “people who wear masks feel more enabled and empowered to do things that they normally wouldn’t have done if their face was seen in public.”