Heather Sprague, a mother of 10, was waiting out the Florida heat in the store before a doctor's appointment when the incident took place.

By Claire Gillespie
July 01, 2020
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Lots of people are doing everything they can to curb the spread of COVID-19. But unfortunately, there are still people who ignore social distancing guidelines, won’t stay home if they’re sick, and refuse to wear a face covering.

Then, there are those who go further than noncompliance—like the unmasked woman who deliberately coughed on a brain tumor patient. 

On June 25, Heather Sprague, a mom of 10 from Jacksonville, Florida, who's being treated for her brain tumor at the Mayo Clinic, took a rare trip out of her home for an appointment in the center of her local town. While she waited for her appointment time, she put on her face mask and went into a Pier 1 store in St. Johns Town Center to get out of the heat. 

“Yesterday I learned firsthand the power of conscientious bystanders. It took 30 seconds to end 15 minutes of aggressive harassment. There were two small children wandering around the store unattended for an extended period, and the little guy was doing the potty dance,” Sprague wrote on Facebook. “It became apparent that they belonged to a woman at the register who was becoming increasingly belligerent. She was screaming at, swearing, insulting, and threatening the staff as she demanded to return an item she didn’t have with her, just a photo of the item on her phone.”

Sprague said the store staff were professional and respectful, but the customer couldn’t return an item she didn’t actually have with her. “She continued to rage, all the while her poor little boy was squirming and asking for a bathroom, which she would have needed to leave the store to find,” Sprague wrote.

Then, the woman "positioned herself so the clerks couldn’t exit the checkout area and screamed that she would stay right there, yelling as loud as she wanted, until all their customers left." That's when Sprague took out her cell phone and started filming quietly from a distance. "She immediately turned her attention away from the staff to me,” Sprague said.

The video accompanying Sprague’s post reveals what happened next: “How about that,” the unmasked woman says as she flips both of her middle fingers at Sprague. She adds, “I think I’ll get real close to you and cough on you then, how’s that?” and proceeds to cough directly in Sprague’s face.

“I did not speak, react, or engage,” Sprague wrote. “Simply stood to document the behavior. When bullies are faced with accountability they must acknowledge the unacceptability of their actions. Within 30 seconds of filming her tirade was done and she left the poor staff in peace. And hopefully her sweet boy got to find a potty. I’m off to find a Covid test, thanks Karen*cough, cough*” 

Sprague had Pier 1 file an incident report in case she gets sick, she told Jacksonville’s The Florida Times-Union. Sprague herself also filed a police report against the woman, citing the offense as “battery—touch or strike, no injury,” First Coast News reported. The aggressor was identified by police as 52-year-old Debra Hunter, but she has not yet been arrested or charged.

At the time of the offense, it wasn’t mandatory to wear a face covering in indoor public places in Jacksonville. But a city-wide face mask requirement—announced during a virtual news conference—went into place on June 29, meaning everybody must wear a mask while in public and indoor locations and when social distancing isn’t possible. This made Jacksonville the last major Florida city to implement a mask policy.

Despite the obvious risks to her life—Sprague reportedly told the police she hasn't been feeling well since the incident—Sprague remains philosophical about what happened. “I just think it’s wise not to give our power away to those who don’t deserve it,” she told The Florida Times-Union. “So, if I let her make me frustrated, angry or consumed by this—then that takes away my availability to my children, and she shouldn’t have that power.”

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