Cape Cod has corrected its misleading COVID-19 signage

This is a success story. It’s about a bad decision that was made by officials of a local area, who then made the wise choice to correct their error when it was pointed out to them. This article will detail the sequence of events that led to that decision.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a tremendous burden on state and local governments

The COVID-19 pandemic that has been going on for several months now has caused both government and private sources to scramble for solutions to stop or help prevent the spread of this deadly virus. Most efforts have been reasonable and based on research and known facts of how this virus spreads and infects people.

Since the federal government has done little to nothing to control or coordinate prevention efforts throughout this country, states and most local municipalities have necessarily had to formulate their own plans to try to stop or mitigate this problem. While the vast majority of local jurisdictions have done a very good job, a few have seriously blundered in the misleading messages they are sending to the public.

Some jurisdictions have created ‘mask required’ signs that businesses can use

Some local municipalities around the country have posted downloadable posters on their websites that businesses can print out and use to show that they require masks in their premises. Requiring masks for all customers and employees is excellent advice, and conforms to CDC and WHO recommendations as being the very best procedure to help prevent the coronavirus spread.

Inexplicably, a handful of municipalities have added ‘shoes’ and ‘shirt’ to mask requirement signs

The problem is that four local municipalities or areas (that’s all I’m aware of) have inexplicably chosen to conflate the requirement to wear a mask with the old, outdated unwelcoming signs from the late 1960s that stated, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service.” They have taken that arbitrarily discriminatory wording and added “No Mask.”

When I first became aware of one local city’s strange juxtaposition of the reasonable and medically necessary mask requirement with the old admonition regarding shoes and shirts (originally designed as a political statement to keep out war-protesting hippies in the late 1960s/early 1970s), I wrote this article about Key West, “Key West, FL, has seriously blundered in its COVID-19 fight.”

Cape Cod in Massachusetts recently put some of these misleading signs on its website

A more recent incident of a municipality/geographical area also choosing to promote such signs is on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The news of this first came to light by an article written by Jeanette Barnes, a reporter from the local Cape Cod NPR station, WCAI. The article, “More Testing, More Signage Aim to Boost COVID Safety” includes an image of one of the signs.

Cape Cod is a hook-shaped peninsula of Massachusetts, and is a popular summertime tourist destination. It incorporates all of Barnstable County, comprised of 15 towns, which include a number of villages. It’s the site of quaint villages, seafood shacks, lighthouses, ponds, and bay and ocean beaches.

To respond to the coronavirus pandemic, local government officials on Cape Cod formed a regional Reopening Task Force to create unified guidelines for businesses, residents, and visitors. One of the things they did was create several downloadable posters that businesses could print out for their storefronts. They had choices of four different sign formats or colors – but inexplicably, all four included the wording, “No shoes, No shirt, No mask, No service.”

How anyone on the Task Force could have thought that shoes or shirts had anything whatsoever to do with preventing the spread of the coronavirus or that it made any sense to put such wording on the mask requirement signs is perplexing.

Upon learning of the Cape Cod sign situation, several barefooters took immediate action

The Society for Barefoot Living, of which I am a member, was alerted to this situation by one of its members who is a year-round resident on Cape Cod.

Another member of the SBL then sent a message to the Task Force via its online comment form. He wrote,

Thank you for efforts to contain COVID-19 (including posters that encourage social distancing, masks and hand washing).

I’m shocked, however, to see the four ‘No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service’ versions. That wording is:

1) Rude.

2) Misleading–shirts and shoes have NOTHING to do with containing the virus, and neither the CDC nor any Health Dept suggests that wording.

3) Offensive–due to that phrase’s discriminatory origins. I would refuse to post a sign with that wording. The simple ‘Please wear a mask’ makes the point accurately and hospitably.

Please eliminate those terrible poster options and provide better and more accurate options on your website. Thank you.

He also wrote a letter to Jeanette Barnes, the local NPR reporter who had written the article that first mentioned the Cape Cod signs. To her, he wrote,

Dear Ms. Barnes,

I write as a long time NPR listener and supporter.  I appreciate the journalistic integrity of NPR and its willingness to provide in-depth coverage of news stories related to justice, equality and basic human rights.

I was shocked by the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force’s choice to promote an offensive (in your words, ‘blunt’) set of posters stating, ‘No shirt, No shoes, No masks, No service,’ as reported in your June 19 article, ‘More Testing, More Signage Aim to Boost COVID Safety.’ [Link to article.]

Sadly, two–but only two–other municipalities (Knoxville, TN and Key West, FL) have issued similar, offensively worded posters, possibly thinking they’re ‘cute.’  In fact, they’re misleading, offensive and rude–and call into question the integrity of their efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Ms. Barnes, I have a request.  But first, allow me to briefly explain the concerns…

1) Those specifically worded signs convey a false message that shirts and shoes protect people from the virus.  Wearing shirts and shoes have nothing to do with reducing the spread of COVID-19.  CDC guidelines make no mention of shirts and shoes. Social distancing, hand washing and masks, yes;  shirt and shoes, no.

2) The wording ‘No shirt, No shoes, No service’ has ugly roots in racism and discrimination.  No government entity should promote that (see: Given the current unrest in our country, it’s disappointing to see the offensive wording revived and associated with a genuinely worthy goal (reducing the spread of COVID-19).

3) These days most businesses don’t post those unfriendly and demeaning ‘NSNSNS’ signs.  They recognize that the rude tone does not promote hospitality or inclusivity.

Ms. Barnes, given what I’ve shared (and because your NPR article prominently displays the offensive poster without any comment regarding its misleading and offensive content), I would like to respectfully ask you to consider using your influence as an NPR journalist to address the genuine concerns with those problematic signs.  I recognize that once a journalist covers a story, they may prefer to move on.  In this case, however, I believe that the poor judgement of the Cape Cod Reopening Taskforce in promoting those signs, and the resulting misinformation and harm they will cause, needs attention and correction.

I hope you agree.  Thank you for your consideration.  And please feel free to contact me if you have any questions,


I myself then contacted the Task Force using their online comment form. I wrote,

I just noticed under your Print Ready Posters section the ‘No mask – No service Signage.’ Why do these posters have to be so blatantly rude and unwelcoming?

I absolutely agree that masks should be worn to help prevent the spread of this virus. But a poster that simply states ‘No mask, No service’ or ‘Mask required for entry’ would clearly get the message out.

Adding the ‘No shoes, No shirt’ part not only trivializes the seriousness of a mask wearing requirement, it spreads false information by the implication that lack of shoes or lack of a shirt will somehow help spread the coronavirus – as lack of a mask will do. And nothing could be further from the truth. Neither the CDC nor any other reliable medical authority has ever indicated or suggested that the wearing of shoes or shirts could in any way help prevent the spread of this virus.

Preventing the spread of this coronavirus is serious. Signs reading ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service’ originated from racism and the politics of the late 1960s and have no business being associated in any way with the efforts to prevent the spread of this virus.

That ‘Shoes/Shirts’ phrase is as discriminatory, inappropriate, and hurtful as it ever was. The vast majority of businesses nowadays realize those signs are nothing more than rude unwelcoming holdovers from the past that should not be on storefronts. I wrote an article about the history of such signs that you may be interested in reading, <>.

For the reasons stated above, I respectfully ask you to remove those offensive posters from your website.

A letter written by the Cape Cod resident apparently was the main impetus for getting favorable action on this problem 

Within the next day or so, the Cape Cod resident SBL member sent the following letter to all the Massachusetts state senators and representatives who were on the Reopening Task Force, with a copy going to the NPR reporter who had written the article. She wrote,

Dear [Senators and Representatives on Task Force]:

First off, I fully support the use of masks in public to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while allowing our businesses to gradually reopen.

However, I am shocked at the conflation of ‘No Masks’ with ‘No Shoes/Shirt’ on one set of posters provided by the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force.

Wearing shirts and shoes are unrelated to the spread of the virus. Masks protect others from asymptomatic people, but wearing a shirt and/or shoes gives no protection. Shoes have actually been shown to spread the virus within hospitals, increasing potential exposure.

Furthermore, the ‘No Shirt/No Shoes/No Service’ message originated as a discriminatory* effort to keep ‘undesirable’ people out of stores. Reviving such a message in these racially-charged times is a huge step backward. Messages like this have no place in the modern world, especially from a semi-governmental body.

I understand that these new signs may have arisen as a way to use ‘familiar’ wording to put out the message about masks. However, for over a month, many local businesses have had signs simply saying ‘No Mask, No Entry.’ People don’t need the out-dated, offensive message for familiarity.

I hope you will encourage the Task Force to reconsider and replace these signs. Less offensive options include ‘Thank you for Wearing a Mask’ or, as above, ‘No Mask, No Entry.’

Thank you for your consideration,


*Signs discriminating against hippies were modelled after segregation signs:

That letter did get some attention. The first response she received was from one state representative who had obviously missed the point of what the problem was. She also received a response from the local NPR reporter, who requested for an interview about the situation.

Shortly following those responses, she received a short message from Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro), the spokesperson for the Task Force. In his message, he thanked her, and said he’d shared her feedback with the Task Force.

The signs were changed; references to ‘shoes’ and ‘shirt’ were removed.

Then, the next day, Senator Cyr again responded,

Hi [ ] – just a follow up that we’re working to rectify. The offensive sign will be taken down. Thanks again for flagging!

All four misleading and offensive signs were indeed removed from the site and replaced with signs of a similar look and format, but no mention of “shoes” or “shirt.” They also added a few new signs that sent a similar message in a more reasonable and respectful way.

The Cape Cod Reopening Task Force recently changed its "mask required" signs for businesses by removing the unrelated and misleading "No shoes, No shirt" wording.
The Cape Cod Reopening Task Force recently changed its “mask required” signs for businesses by removing the unrelated and misleading “No shoes, No shirt” wording. UPDATE: Those were the signs as of July 2020. Currently, the Cape Cod website shows no reference to such signs.

We can make a difference and cause favorable changes to be made when needed 

This situation shows that it is possible to get wrongs righted, if we just make the effort.

The fact that only four cities or local areas in the U.S. have created and promoted the “NSNSNMNS” signs would seem like a “drop in the bucket,” considering there are roughly 20,000 incorporated cities in this country. Still, such signs’ negative and misleading influence on people’s attitudes should not be discounted. For example, the year-round population of Cape Cod is approximately 215,000, which swells to about 500,000 during the summer.

That’s a lot of people who could have seen the misleading signs and erroneously assumed shoes and shirts were just as important as masks in fighting the coronavirus.  Not only that, such images on the internet can potentially be seen by billions of people around the world.

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I think mixing in shoes and shirts with the mask is also weakening the message because people will say “oh it’s another pointless rule” and ignore it. It would be better to point out the facts: that mouth and nose protection can reduce the risk of infection by 80% and that risk is highest if a minimum distance of 2 meters to an infected person cannot be kept. That there are infected persons who don’t show symptoms, if you are not tested you might be one so it’s an important courtesy to all others to cover your mouth and nose… Read more »