By Minh N. Vu
Several weeks ago, we blogged about mask objectors presenting businesses with documents bearing the U.S. Department of Justice seal stating that they are not required to wear masks because of their disability. Last week, the DOJ issued a statement that “[t]he Department of Justice has been made aware of postings or flyers on the internet regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the use of face masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which include the Department of Justice’s seal. These postings were not issued by the Department and are not endorsed by the Department.” This statement makes clear that the DOJ has not taken a position on whether businesses can lawfully deny entry to people who refuse to wear masks because of a claimed disability, but provides no guidance to business presented with this thorny issue.
To further complicate matters, jurisdictions such as New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that have issued executive orders mandating the wearing of masks in public all differ slightly on how businesses should respond to people who cannot wear masks because of a disability or medical condition.
The New York City guidance suggests that a business may be able to exclude people who refuse to wear masks because of a medical condition or disability as long as the business offers alternatives to access the business’ goods and services. The NYC guidance states:
Where a customer declines to wear a face covering due to a medical condition or disability, you cannot require the individual to provide medical documentation verifying the health issue. In addition, you must discuss with the individual whether there is a way you can provide a reasonable accommodation that will not cause you an undue hardship. You should try to provide alternative arrangements that are workable for your store, your staff, and your other customers. These arrangements will vary considerably based on each store’s ability to make accommodations without creating a hardship on the business.
Depending on the staffing and layout of the retail store, some examples of accommodations that may be reasonable and not cause undue hardship to you are:
- Have an employee bring the individual the items they want to buy and allow the individual to pay for them at the front of the store.
- Have the individual leave a list of items with the store and then deliver the items to their home.
- Inform the individual that they may order by telephone or online and have items delivered to their home.
- Suggest that the individual have a friend or family member do their shopping.
The Pennsylvania guidance, on the other hand, says “individuals who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition (including children under the age of 2 years per CDC guidance) may enter the premises and are not required to provide documentation of such medical condition.”
The Virginia guidance takes an approach similar to Pennsylvania, stating:
Nothing in this Order shall require the use of a face covering by any person for whom doing so would be contrary to his or her health or safety because of a medical condition. Any person who declines to wear a face covering because of a medical condition shall not be required to produce or carry medical documentation verifying the stated condition nor shall the person be required to identify the precise underlying medical condition.
All of these orders prohibit a business from asking a customer about his or her medical condition or disability once the customer has informed the business of the existence of the condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask. The orders differ as on whether a business can lawfully exclude such individuals from the premises.
The fact that a jurisdiction exempts individuals with disabilities and/or medical conditions from its mask mandate does not necessarily mean that private businesses cannot impose more stringent mask requirements to protect their employees and customers. However, such requirements may be challenged as unlawful under Title III of the ADA. In fact, just last week, nine such lawsuits were filed in federal court claiming a retailer’s mask policy violated the ADA. A business defending such a challenge would have to show that requiring masks to be worn by all individuals inside a facility is a legitimate safety requirement, and that making an exception for people with claimed disabilities is not a reasonable modification of the policy. While it is difficult to predict how courts will rule on this novel issue, businesses can better position themselves for such a challenge by documenting the reasons for the policy at the time the business enacts the policy (e.g., governmental mandate, CDC guidance, etc.), as well as the business’ inability to modify the policy (including all possibilities for modifications considered), put in place alternative measures for providing goods and services to businesses that do not require entry into a facility, and train employees on the existence and appropriate communication of those alternatives.
Of course, businesses could avoid this litigation risk by allowing people claiming a disability or medical condition to enter their premises without a mask, although this heightens the risk of COVID-19 exposure for employees and customers and other potential liability outside of Title III of the ADA. A rock and a hard place indeed.