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Face off: Masks are mandatory to some, but furiously rejected by others

Arrests in Lincoln, shops close in Westerly and South Kingstown, after customers dispute COVID-19 restrictions

William Beauchene, 63, of Lincoln with a gash on his leg sustained during a fight with a younger man who refused to wear a mask.
William Beauchene, 63, of Lincoln with a gash on his leg sustained during a fight with a younger man who refused to wear a mask.Courtesy William Beauchene

LINCOLN, R.I. -- William Beauchene says he hadn’t intended to say anything about wearing a mask to the man half his age.

But when Beauchene walked out of his local Seasons Corner Market with a hot coffee and held the door open last Thursday morning, the other customer got close behind him.

“I said, dude, where’s your mask?” Beauchene recalled. At that, he said, the younger man snapped and started ranting on the way out the door, calling him an “[expletive] liberal.”

“He said, I have the right not to wear a mask -- it’s in the Constitution,” said Beauchene, 63. “I said, Really? People in my age group are dying of this.”

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Within a few minutes, the parking-lot confrontation escalated -- with furious words, chest-bumping, and the other man allegedly hitting Beauchene with his car door.

The violence ended with the arrests of both men, becoming the latest scene in Rhode Island of people facing off over face masks.

While most appear to be complying with the requirements to wear face masks and practice social distancing when out in public, there have been memorable exceptions.

Brickley’s Ice Cream, which has shops in Narragansett and South Kingstown, warned last month about rude customers who refused to wear masks and mistreated the young employees.

On Tuesday, Brickley’s announced it was closing the South Kingstown shop for the season, after two men created an ugly scene because they couldn’t eat their ice cream on the patio.

Because of social-distancing rules, there isn’t enough room on the patio for people to linger after they’ve ordered. When asked to make room, the men became obnoxious.

“When another patron spoke up and intervened in an attempt to help, one of the men became threatening to the patron and things almost came to blows,” the shop said in a Facebook post.

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Two Little Fish in Westerly decided last week to end dining on its premises because of customers who were verbally abusive when asked to wear masks and comply with the restrictions. “IT’S A PANDEMIC, PEOPLE,” the restaurant posted on Facebook. “DEAL WITH IT.”

Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said she’s heard from restaurants who have “fired” customers because of their behavior and refusal to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

“There are groups of people who say, You are infringing on my rights,” Venturini said. “When a customer gets belligerent, you can’t have that.”

The association designed postcards for businesses to hand out to customers to inform them of the need to comply with health restrictions, “in a nicer way, rather than a confrontational way.” They try to remind customers that the businesses are obligated to follow the rules, for everyone’s health, she said.

“I do believe we live in a country where we have rights,” Venturini said. “But now we are looking at something that is bigger than all of us.”

The governor’s executive order requiring mask wearing in public and in businesses makes exceptions for people with medical conditions and young children. The state Department of Health and the state Department of Business Regulation generally gets complaints about businesses where there is a pattern of people not wearing masks or complying with health restrictions.

Businesses aren’t required to ask customers to leave if they aren’t wearing masks, but can remind them that they should wear a mask. “We encourage people to start with this approach of educating and reminding first,” said Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken.

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That’s the approach that local police are taking, said Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. “I’m pretty confident that nobody is out there doing criminal enforcement,” he said.

As the owner of The Barn, a homestyle breakfast-and-lunch place in Little Compton, Wordell also gets a feel for what’s happening in the restaurant industry. Most of the customers wear masks, he said, and those who aren’t at first will comply when asked.

“For the most part, people want to see that you are doing the right thing,” Wordell said.

He’s heard other stories, about people getting too close and telling each other to step back, and words are exchanged.

Although, Wordell said, nothing that reached the level of what happened at Seasons market in Lincoln last week.

The Seasons markets have signs asking people to “please wear a face covering” and maintain a distance of six feet apart. “We prefer that they wear a mask,” said Angelo Ruo, the vice president of operations.

The clerks don’t instruct customers to wear masks, he said. “It’s a touchy situation,” Ruo said, “because if you say something to someone and it goes the wrong way ...”

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Beauchene, a vice president of commercial lending at BankFive, said he hadn’t ever called out anyone for not wearing a mask.

“I have never told anyone I have seen in stores to put a mask on. And to be honest I don’t see many unmasked faces out there,” he later said in an e-mail. “If someone is going to not wear a mask that is their business. But when they don’t wear a mask and bring that unmasked face within a foot from my head, well THEY MAKE IT MY BUSINESS AT THAT POINT. If you go around without a mask stay the hell away from people!”

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That’s why he said something to the younger man, later identified as 30-year-old Ralph Buontempo III of Lincoln.

“This kid immediately made it political,” Beauchene said during an interview Friday. “I think some of these guys don’t wear a mask so someone will say something to them.”

Seasons Corner Market in Lincoln, R.I., where two customers were arrested on July 9 after an argument over wearing masks.
Seasons Corner Market in Lincoln, R.I., where two customers were arrested on July 9 after an argument over wearing masks.Amanda Milkovits

Within view of the store surveillance camera and a growing crowd of witnesses, the two men yelled at each other. Beauchene said Buontempo called him obscenities and chest-bumped him.

Beauchene pulled down his own mask and blew in Buontempo’s face, “to make my point” that he could have COVID and not know it.

Buontempo smacked Beauchene’s coffee out of his hands, splashing it over the store manager who was trying to calm them, according to police.

“I said, dude, you’re an idiot. We’re on video,” Beauchene said. “He said, dude, when I catch you off this property with no cameras, I’m going to slit your throat.”

Beauchene later told police about the younger man’s threat. He said that was the reason he decided to wait, under the surveillance cameras, for Buontempo to leave first.

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He stood behind Buontempo’s sedan and took a picture of the license plate. He moved out of the way when Buontempo suddenly backed up, “but he opened his door and it slammed into me,” Beauchene said.

Beauchene said he was knocked down several feet, bending the car door, and heard people screaming at Buontempo. The store manager called the police and an ambulance.

Beauchene said the firefighters told him to go to a hospital to get stitches, but he declined. One of the officers told him that they could either walk away and “call it a day,” or both be arrested.

“I said, Let’s call it a day,” Beauchene said. “But then I saw the guy was getting into his car with a little smirk.”

So, Beauchene and Buontempo were both charged with disorderly conduct, with court dates in the fall. On Friday, the police charged Buontempo with felony assault with a deadly weapon, after taking a witness statement from Beauchene and watching store surveillance video of the incident.

“Our initial thought was Beauchene grabbed the guy’s door, but that’s not the case,” said Lincoln Police Captain Philip Gould. The video footage showed that Buontempo opened his door as Beauchene stepped out from behind the car, and then Buontempo accelerated in reverse with the door open, according to police.

The police also are submitting the report to the state Department of Health to potentially issue a fine against Buontempo for not wearing a mask, Gould said.

Buontempo was arraigned Friday evening at the Lincoln police station, where he was released on his own recognizance and issued a no-contact order with Beauchene. Court records show that Buontempo already has a minor criminal record that includes domestic assault, disorderly conduct, and making obscene phone calls.

Buontempo works as a real-estate agent, according to his Facebook page.

When a Globe reporter called Buontempo, his parents answered the phone. His mother complained that the reporting was “unfair” and that Beauchene had coughed on her son. His father referred questions to their lawyer, Providence criminal defense attorney James Lepore, who did not return a call to his office.

Meanwhile, Beauchene texted a childhood friend about the incident, along with a picture of his gashed leg.

That friend, filmmaker Peter Farrelly, shared it with more than 33,500 Twitter followers:

“Here’s a picture of my friend Bill Beauchene who got attacked and then run over today after asking a 20-something-year-old guy standing next to him in a convenience store why he wasn’t wearing a mask.... #wearadamnmask”

(Beauchene made an appearance in the Farrelly Brothers 1996 movie “Kingpin” and was the namesake of a crooked cop in the 2000 film “Me, Myself & Irene.”)

Beauchene remains bothered by the encounter. “I called the governor’s office to find out, what’s the deal here? The public is having a hard time with this,” he said.

The executive order requires people to wear face coverings in public, but “there’s no teeth to it,” Beauchene said. “It allows people who just don’t want to wear a mask… it gives them an open window to walk around and do this,” he said.

He said he doesn’t intend to speak up again.

“You’re not going to change anybody’s mind,” Beauchene said. “Not with someone this ignorant.”



Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com