While shopping for eyeglasses in Des Moines, Iowa, last year, Shane Wayne Michael was approached by a patron and asked what's become a familiar question during the coronavirus pandemic: Can you pull your mask over your nose?
But Michael, whose nose was exposed inside Vision 4 Less, did not take kindly to the question in November, according to a criminal complaint.
What happened next, police say, was a parking-lot fight in which Michael allegedly attacked Mark Denning's eyes and genitals. Denning told authorities that Michael then pulled down his mask and began to cough and spit in his face.
“If I have it, you have it!” said Michael, referring to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the complaint.
Weeks after the Iowa man was convicted of wilful injury causing serious injury, Michael, 42, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison for the violent attack stemming from the mask dispute.
Michael's sentence is among the sternest yet nationwide related to an argument over face coverings since the start of the pandemic.
The sentencing comes amid a continuing flurry of incidents and arrests at places like banks and polling places over masks. Airlines have seen an unprecedented rise in unruly passenger behaviour, with the Federal Aviation Administration saying that a large majority of its incident reports this year have involved people who would not comply with the federal mandate to wear a face covering.
A maskless Florida woman was recently sentenced to 30 days in jail for purposely coughing on a customer at a Pier 1 store last year. A Family Dollar security guard in Flint, Mich, was fatally shot last month, authorities said, after telling a customer that her child had to wear a face covering to enter the store.
Neither Michael's attorneys nor Iowa Assistant Attorney General Kevin Cmelik, who represented the prosecution in the trial, immediately returned requests for comment Saturday. Efforts to reach Denning, 60, were unsuccessful.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance on correct mask-wearing says Americans should “put the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin.”
The incident, first reported by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, unfolded Nov. 11, 2020, when Denning noticed Michael's mask was pulled below his nose inside the Des Moines store. After Denning asked Michael to pull up his mask, the two “exchanged words” before exiting the store, the complaint says.
At the time, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, had just signed an order extending the state's public health emergency in which customers and employees were required to wear masks at “establishments providing personal services.”
The men offered different accounts to authorities of how the fight came to be.
Denning told police that Michael followed him out of the Vision 4 Less and began assaulting him, with both men falling to the ground. Denning said he bit Michael's left arm when the man had gouged him in his left eye, the Capital Dispatch reported.
Michael responded by kneeing Denning in his genitals several times, according to the complaint. Then, Michael allegedly pulled down his mask and made a reference to covid while coughing and spitting on Denning.
Michael told authorities that it was Denning who started the fight when he shoulder-checked Michael into a car and poked his thumb into his stomach.
The 42-year-old claimed he was holding Denning on the ground to try to defend himself, records show. His father, Dennis Michael, claimed to the Capital Dispatch in April that Shane Michael has asthma and that he was “not going to cover his nose and mouth because he can't breathe.”
But multiple witnesses at the scene reported Michael to be the aggressor, and one employee described him to police as a “problem.” A photo submitted as evidence to Polk County District Court shows Denning's face red and badly swollen, with his left eye swollen shut. Denning wrote on Facebook how he almost lost his eye, according to the Capital Dispatch.
Michael was arrested and booked into Polk County Jail, records show. He pleaded not guilty, but was convicted last month, reported the Des Moines Register.
State attorneys say the charge, a class C felony, can result in a 10-year sentence. Michael's father downplayed Denning's injuries to the Capital Dispatch.
“It's like [Denning] got a black eye in a bar fight, and now my son is getting 10 years in prison,” he said.