COVID conflict: How some OGE customers are reacting to greeters grilling them on travel

A greeter at Outdoor Gear Exchange on Burlington’s Church Street found out recently how hazardous his job could be when he was allegedly assaulted by a customer he refused to allow into the store.

Brian Wade, executive director of retail service at Outdoor Gear Exchange, said the employee greeted a party of four, and blocked the door on Sunday, Sept.13, when one of the party, Burlington resident Bill Atkinson, attempted to enter the store without answering screening questions for COVID-19.

Wade declined to identify the employee because he said he had been “traumatized” by the experience.

That confrontation is symptomatic of the extreme pressures the COVID-19 crisis has placed on nearly every aspect of life, resulting in heightened responses on all sides of many issues. Store owner Marc Sherman said he’s willing to shoulder the burden of telling some customers they can’t come inside, despite the friction it may cause. 

“I don’t feel people are taking (COVID-19) as seriously as they should, so we are,” Sherman said. “We respect people’s right to not follow the rules, but our choice is to follow them completely and protect the community the best we can. There are still so many unknowns. The best course of action is to err on the side of over-caution.”

How a question escalated to a physical altercation 

“The first thing I want to say is it’s really unfortunate the whole thing happened,” Atkinson said Wednesday when reached by phone. “I’m embarrassed by it. I reacted. I was mentally caught off guard by the whole situation and how it went down, so to speak. That’s not me. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I conduct myself.”

Atkinson, 64, said he went to Outdoor Gear Exchange on Sunday afternoon with his wife, a friend from Colorado and his friend’s wife. He said his recollection is that they did not all arrive at the store as a “party of four,” as Wade said, but that his and his friend’s wives arrived first and went inside, while he and his friend looked at skis on sale outside the entrance.

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Atkinson said he and his friend decided to go into the store, where they were stopped and questioned at the entrance by the greeter.

Since reopening in May after shutting down in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, an employee outside the front entrance of the store asks customers whether they have traveled outside of Vermont in the past 14 days.

Anyone who has come from somewhere other than the “green” counties in the Northeastern states, or West Virginia and Ohio, is told they can’t enter the store unless they have quarantined for seven days and tested negative for COVID-19, or quarantined for 14 days without showing symptoms of illness.

Green counties are those counties where the rate of COVID-19 is less than 400 cases per million people. Red counties are those where the rate is 800 per million and require quarantine. Yellow counties have 400 to 799 active cases per million, and also require quarantine. Outdoor Gear Exchange greeters have a map showing where the green, yellow and red counties are in the Northeast, Ohio and West Virginia.

Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, explained that West Virginia and Ohio are included with the Northeastern states because they are considered to be within a day’s drive of Vermont. Anywhere else is considered an airplane flight away, and therefore requires quarantining upon entering Vermont.

“The greeter said, ‘Have you traveled outside Vermont in the past 14 days?’ to which (Atkinson) replied, ‘I’m from Burlington,’ and some expletives,” Wade said of the Sunday incident. “Since he didn’t answer the question, the greeter stood up to block the door. Bill put his hands around the greeter’s neck and wrestled him to the ground.”

Atkinson said Wednesday that he disagreed with some of Wade’s account of the incident. He asserts that he had one hand on the greeters throat rather than two.

Several Outdoor Gear Exchange employees responded to the confrontation, getting in between Atkinson and the employee. One of them called Burlington Police, but Wade said by the time police arrived Atkinson and three people he was with had left. Wade went looking for Atkinson and found him and his party at The Vermont Pub & Brewery, where he called police again.

Atkinson was cited for simple assault by the police, but was not arrested or handcuffed. His arraignment is scheduled for December, according to Rachel Kahlig of the Burlington Police Records Department. Kahlig said that because of the pandemic, court dates have been pushed out “considerably.” Kahlig also said the police report on the incident would not be available until after Atkinson’s arraignment.

Isn’t it enough to be from a green county?

Atkinson said he “clearly conveyed” to the greeter that he lived in Burlington and that his friend was from a green county in Colorado. He assumed that both he and his friend would be allowed in the store.

“Here’s where it turned south in my opinion,” Atkinson said. “While I’m disappointed in myself for reacting and for what happened, the young man posted outside (Outdoor Gear Exchange) that day had very poor customer service and was flat out rude, nearly belligerent.”

Atkinson said the greeter told him and his friend it didn’t matter if his friend was from a green county in Colorado, because anyone traveling to Vermont from Colorado had to quarantine.

When it became clear his friend was not going to be allowed into the store, Atkinson said they moved away from the entrance. Having left his cellphone at home, Atkinson asked his friend to text his wife and let her know they were stuck outside. When she didn’t answer, Atkinson decided he would go in and find their wives and bring them back outside.

Brian Wade acknowledged he did not know why the wife of Atkinson’s friend from Colorado was allowed into the store when the husband was not.

“I don’t know how she got through,” Wade said. “It’s a great question. The answer is, if we had known she was from Colorado she wouldn’t have been let in.”

Greeting? Not fun.

Atkinson is banned from Outdoor Gear Exchange for life, according to Wade, who said that while this was the first physical confrontation a greeter has suffered, there has been plenty of verbal abuse by others.

“The greeting position is not very fun, because while there’s not overt physical threats there’s definitely resentment and contempt,” Wade said. “People holding a grudge against us for standing up and enforcing what the governor has mandated.”

Outdoor Gear Exchange is going beyond what Gov. Scott has mandated, said Deputy Commerce Secretary Ted Brady. Retail stores are not required to screen customers at their doors for health and travel requirements laid out in the state’s COVID-19 policies.

Brady said he doesn’t fault Outdoor Gear Exchange for going above and beyond the requirements.

“We have found from the beginning that Outdoor Gear Exchange is one of the best actors complying with guidance,” he said. “It does not surprise me that they would be really conservative to make sure they’re doing everything to protect people.”

Marc Sherman, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange, said the business is screening customers because “our staff is concerned about coronavirus.”

“I’m really proud of my staff for continuing to remain vigilant and protecting our community,” Sherman said. “We’re proud of our lack of infections in the store and we are determined to never become a spreader location. We’re committed to the safety of our staff and the safety of our customers.”

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.