Lori Wagoner at her work station (Photo by Eamon Queeney, The Washington Post)

Lori Wagoner, 63, never expected that her job as a retail clerk in a small North Carolina town would become so dangerous. But as she told The Washington Post for a July 18 package of 12 oral histories from the pandemic, covid-19 has drastically changed her job responsibilities.

Wagoner told

reporter Eli Saslow that she has asthma, and if she got the novel coronavirus, she’d have an increased chance of developing a severe version of its disease. Thus, North Carolina’s mask mandate is crucial to her health, and she says about 95 percent of her customers have followed signs outside the store and worn a mask, but many of those who don’t have not been kind to her. Many are coastal visitors from cities: "They come here to have a good time and maybe they’re drinking. Some of them would see our signs, open the front door, and just yell: “F--- masks. F--- you.” Or they would walk in, refuse to wear a mask and then dump their merchandise all over the counter."


She relayed one encounter that spiraled downhill: “He rolled his eyes and ignored me, so I knew where it was going. . . . He said he just wanted to buy a drink. I said, ‘Okay, that means I will get your drink while you wait outside and I will bring it to the door.’ But he’s still moving into the store, and I’m trying to stay in front of his path and keep him from going down the aisle. He said, “Come on, lady. I just want water. I said: I’m tired of this. Just leave the store now.’ He kept moving toward me, yelling, ‘ADA exemption, ADA exemption’,” referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects people with disabilities -- but not mask mandates.

“And now my body was starting to shake. It was fear and so much anger. My co-worker was yelling for him to get out, and another customer started yelling, and finally he stomped around for a while and then turned back outside. We locked the front door and my co-worker and I went back into the storage room. We sat there and sobbed.”

Now, at this small store on the coast of North Carolina, in a town Wagoner apparently didn't want to name, a customer has to ring a doorbell to enter. And next to her, behind her register, is pepper spray. With the local sheriff’s office refusing to help enforce the mandate, she said, she is now acting as enforcer of the mask mandate and ultimate defender of her own life; a retail clerk intimately trained in an array of behaviors from the public in response to a scientific and public-health effort. 

“I don’t know if the virus will kill me or if it’s going to be my rage,” she said. “Sometimes I want to cut America into different pieces, and all these anti-maskers can live together, and we’ll see how it works.”