A group of anti-mask activists walk to the downtown Trader Joe's on Sunday, Feb. 28.
(Santa Cruz Police Department via Facebook)
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As complaints about anti-maskers persist, Santa Cruz police disclose probe, tell businesses how to respond

In the incident Sunday evening outside Trader Joe’s, the group didn’t enter the store, but stood outside for about four minutes as employees blocked the doors and let other shoppers in. Police on Tuesday said they continue to get calls from concerned residents about anti-mask activities.

In the wake of anti-mask activists showing up — albeit briefly — at Santa Cruz’s downtown Trader Joe’s for a second time in the past month, police are advising business owners about what to do if people try to enter businesses without face coverings.

Police also said they’ve launched an investigation into the incident Sunday, as well as other anti-mask activities that day. “SCPD is actively following up with businesses, identifying additional participants, and seeking prosecution,” the Santa Cruz Police Department posted on its Facebook page.

On Sunday, after staging another maskless “Free Hugs” event along West Cliff Drive, a group of about 20 people went to the Trader Joe’s — the same store that was overwhelmed by anti-mask activists over Valentine’s Day weekend for about seven minutes.

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In the Feb. 14 incident, captured in a now-viral video, the large group skipped an outdoor line, entered the store and began shopping without wearing face coverings as stunned and angry patrons and employees looked on.

In the incident Sunday evening, the group didn’t enter the store, but stood outside for about four minutes as employees blocked the doors and let other shoppers in.

Police on Tuesday said they continue to get calls from concerned residents about anti-mask activities.

They also said that they were monitoring that group’s whereabouts on Sunday and are seeking the public’s help in their investigation.

“Gathering in a public space without masks or social distancing is illegal,” police wrote in the Facebook post. “Officers identified many of those who participated, wrote case reports, and forwarded the reports for prosecution to the responsible prosecutorial agency. If adequate evidence is presented, violators will be summoned to court.”

Had the situation gotten out of control, police said they were ready to step in.

“Police officers monitored the anti-mask events and were present to intervene if needed, deescalate likely conflict, and protect businesses. That goal was accomplished,” they wrote. “Officers on the scene chose to avoid a potentially contentious confrontation over an infraction. Officers decided to work the cases after the protest and were standing by should the protesters block doorways or impede shoppers.”

Santa Cruz police Chief Andy Mills, members of the city council and others have expressed concern that anti-mask demonstrations have become more potentially dangerous since the fall.

In December, Capitola police arrested an anti-mask activist for trespassing after he entered the Capitola Post Office without a face covering and postal officials called police, according to documents obtained by Lookout and a review of video of the arrest.

Besides that incident, police and witnesses say that anti-mask activists since September have hand-delivered letters of protest to the homes of Mills and Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel, prompting a brief inquiry by the county sheriff’s office; exchanged words with Santa Cruz cops at a farmers’ market, and, also over Valentine’s Day weekend, called the organizer of an outdoor market on the Westside “a Nazi” when she asked them to leave her event.

In Santa Cruz, police are advising business owners about how to handle these kinds of situations.

“Private businesses can decide whether to allow customers or visitors onto a property if they are not wearing a mask,” “Companies can tell patrons — either wear a mask, or you’re not allowed inside.

“A mask situation is like the no shirt, no shoes, no service policy. If the situation escalates, avoid arguing and physical contact. The manager or employee should call the SCPD to handle it as a trespassing situation. The store management must be willing to sign the complaint to file charges on trespassers.”

Police also said they are requesting the public’s help in identifying protesters.

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“We accept tips and digital media depicting protesters harassing our community members in and around the City of Santa Cruz on February 28, 2021,” they wrote. “If you witnessed unlawful intimidating actions, we urge you to submit any information, photos, or videos that could be relevant to Detective Sergeant Gregg at gcrofts@cityofsantacruz.com.”

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