Teeslanger

Teeslanger, a T-shirt shop in Cave Creek, doesn’t allow guests to wear masks. Outside of the store, guests have the ability to punch the likeness of President-elect Joe Biden.

A Cave Creek man is reeling after a souvenir shop owner pulled a gun on him—all because he was wearing a mask.

The man didn’t notice the sign in the entrance forbidding masks and that declared, “This virus was a weapon used by the Democrats to steal an election!” 

Upon entry, the man said Teeslanger’s owner, Scott Cerkoney, told him to leave. Cerkoney got in the face of the victim, who did the same to the shop owner. The man said Cerkoney then pulled a gun on him, demanding he leave, as confirmed by statements from witnesses and in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office report. The Foothills Focus doesn’t identify victims.

“I pushed him away,” the victim said. “I didn’t know who he was or anything. He pulled the gun.”

Cerkoney refused to talk to The Foothills Focus about the store’s “no-mask” mandate or the recent incident. However, he said in a Facebook video that he doesn’t allow masked customers because “of what we’ve seen happening with looting and violence and rioting. Generally, it’s pretty hard to tell who the good people are and the bad people are when you have a mask on.” He said the COVID-19 death rate is “.0008%,” anyway. 

“According to both parties and witness statements, an altercation occurred at which time the owner drew a weapon and demanded the individual leave his store immediately,” said Sgt. Calbert Gillett, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office public information officer.

“Due to the owner’s store policy, deputies made notifications to the department of health for review,” Gillett added. 

The case remains under investigation, said Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez, also an MCSO public information officer. When the case is turned over to the county attorney’s office, it will be reviewed for possible criminal charges. 

Teeslanger’s no-mask policy is a “direct violation of the Maricopa County face-covering ordinance,” said Will Humble, the Arizona Public Health Association’s executive director. He is the former Arizona Department of Health director.

Humble described the county’s mitigation measures as “paper tiger ordinances,” explaining how many businesses defy executive orders and mask mandates without enforcement or repercussions. 

While small retail shops like Teeslanger don’t pose as big of a risk of transmission as bars, restaurants and nightclubs, lack of enforcement is contributing to the spread of COVID-19, Humble said.

“Lots of people out there like that, and he’s getting away with it,” Humble said about Cerkoney. The store owner “will continue to get away with it because there’s no enforcement in the state by design, by the governor, Dr. (Cara) Christ—and you can print that,” Humble added. 

A woman, who was immunocompromised due to chemotherapy-like medication, has come forward saying Cerkoney told her to leave the store as well for wearing a mask.

She and her husband noticed the sign in the store’s entrance but assumed it was instructing customers to wear masks.

Cerkoney turned to the masked couple as they entered and said, “No masks allowed in the store.” She said she thought he was joking and replied, “But my mask is so cute.” 

Cerkoney approached the couple and gestured them to leave while saying, “No, I’m serious. Goodbye. Get out of here,” she said.

After the confrontation, she felt a “plethora of emotions. I was aggravated to tears.”

She said she has “crippling” arthritis but works in the health field. The medicine she takes for her condition is “basically chemotherapy that’s used in small doses,” which makes her constantly ill, she said. Any illness, including COVID-19, is a threat to her health, she added.

A conservative, the woman sent an anonymous report about the shop to Maricopa County via its website but has yet to hear a response.

“We’re law-abiding citizens,” she said. “If there is a mandate—whether we’re Republican or Democrat—that’s just what you’re supposed to do, to be respectful and put your mask on.

“It’s not safe that he’s trying to make this a political thing, which a lot of people are.”

Teeslanger is located in Prickly Pear Plaza and sells a variety of souvenirs, including politically themed T-shirts with phrases like “Take your COVID-19 and shove it…” and “Votes Don’t Matter,” as well as “MAGA” merchandise. Outside of the store is a replica of President-elect Joe Biden’s head on a pole that guests can punch.

Teeslanger’s store policy appears to be a “marketing ploy” to attract the “anti-mask crowd” to visit and spend money, Humble said. 

“They’re benefiting from it because they’re getting loyal customers in the door to buy the kinds of T-shirts that reinforce the message that this pandemic is unimportant and that people who are dying are unimportant. What’s more important is their ‘right’ to not do something as simple as wearing a face covering in public,” Humble added.  

Humble said the shop is merely a “protagonist” in what is actually a larger story—that “the health director and Gov. (Doug) Ducey have never been interested in enforcing the mitigation measures.” 

Maricopa County Communications Director Fields Moseley said the county’s face-covering regulation applies to people, not businesses.

The Arizona Department of Health’s authority over mask use covers restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and water parks “as per the governor’s executive order,” said Steve Elliott, the department’s communications director.

However, the Arizona Department of Health “strongly encourages” residents to wear masks and distance any time they are in public, Elliott added.

“It’s a joke,” Humble said. “There has never been meaningful enforcement of the mitigation measures. Because of that, businesses know that they can get away with it and not get punished.”

There would still be rising cases of COVID-19 and hospital capacity issues even if enforcement had been in place, Humble contended. “It’s a hell of a lot worse because they weren’t doing enforcement,” he said.

The female victim said she sees the chaos at work. “It’s heartbreaking, and it’s horrible,” she said. Many people die alone due to visitors’ rules at hospitals, she added. 

She “constantly” sees doctors and hospital staff break down crying in the hallway and elevators, especially during the most recent surge, she said.

“People are tired, and it’s scary,” she said. “Just like how everybody else wants to move on with their life, so does everybody else who works in a hospital.”

The time to intervene was in late November, when hospitals anticipated going beyond capacity, Humble said. The chief medical officers urged Ducey to do something, and he “completely ignored their requests,” he said. 

Humble stated that if Ducey and Christ don’t implement meaningful interventions, “Well, just more people are going to die. That’s all. And unnecessarily."