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During the pandemic, many businesses require people to wear masks. A lot of people with disabilities have a higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19. For them, requiring masks is very important. For others, wearing a mask may be hard because of a disability. This handout answers questions people with disabilities might have about mask policies in stores and other private businesses.
This handout is not about state and local laws that require distancing and masks. Instead, this handout answers some of the questions Disability Rights Texas receives about disability laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and how they apply to mask policies.
Businesses requiring masks
Question: Can private businesses—like stores, restaurants, bars, gyms, law offices, dental offices, etc.—require their customers to wear masks?
Answer: Generally, yes.
Mask policies and people with disabilities
Question: Does having a mask policy help people with disabilities?
Answer: Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others, recognize that there are various “risk factors” that increase the chances of serious illness. Many of those risk factors are disabilities. They include, but are not limited to:
- Chronic kidney disease
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from organ transplant
- Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
Other conditions may also increase the risk for severe illness. Check with the CDC website for an up-to-date list.
The CDC and other public health agencies agree that wearing masks can reduce the chances of infection. So mask policies can protect many people with disabilities, as well as others.
Forcing businesses to have mask policies
Question: Can stores and businesses be forced to have mask policies for everyone?
Answer: This is generally a question of state or local laws. Check your state, county, and city websites to find the latest information on this.
Question: I have a disability that puts me at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Can I force a store or business to have a mask policy if they do not want to have one?
Answer: As mentioned above, state or local laws—or company policies—may require masks. If so, reporting a store that is violating those rules might help get a mask policy in place and enforced. If there isn’t a mask policy, the ADA requires a business to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, if necessary. In some cases, this accommodation might include having a mask policy to protect people with risk-factor disabilities. But more commonly, accommodations will include different kinds of policy changes, like those listed in the question below about accommodations you could ask for.
Entering a business without a mask
Question: I have a disability that prevents me from wearing a mask, or makes wearing one difficult. Do I have a right to enter a private business without a mask, even if they normally require one?
Answer: In our view, no. Entering without a mask is a safety issue because it puts you and others at risk of infection. Instead, you should focus on other kinds of accommodations that might work, like those in the question below about accommodations you could ask for. The business can still exclude you if you cannot wear a mask, but it should then serve you in different ways. Generally, businesses cannot completely refuse to serve you.
Accommodations if you can’t wear a mask
Question: How do I ask for accommodations at a store, if I cannot wear a mask?
Answer: You should contact the business in advance and ask to speak to a manager. Explain to the manager or other employee why you cannot wear a mask, and work out alternatives.
Question: If the private business will not let me in without a mask, and I can’t wear one, what are some other things I could ask for?
Answer: Reasonable accommodations could include, for example:
- Telephone ordering
- Online shopping
- Curbside pickup or home delivery
- Alternative mouth and nose coverings, e.g., scarves, looser coverings, or face shields
- Being served by phone or video call
Options if masks prevent lip reading
Question: I can wear a mask myself, but I am deaf or hard-of-hearing, and need to be able to read the lips or facial expressions of store employees. Their mask prevents that. What can I do?
Answer: The National Association of the Deaf suggests asking store personnel to use written communication, such as writing notes back and forth, or using smartphone apps like BIG (iOS), Big Word (Android), and Cardzilla (iOS, Android). Other options may include asking staff to use a clear mask or a face shield. Even if you normally use in-person interpreters, in some cases you might agree to try interacting remotely via Relay, or agreeing to video remote interpreter (VRI) services. To request these accommodations, remember to let the business know ahead of time.
Businesses asking about your disability
Question: If I ask for an accommodation, can the business ask me about my disability or my inability to use a mask?
Answer: A business can ask for information, but only if it is necessary to determine how to serve you. If you cannot wear a mask for medical or psychological reasons, you might want to have a letter from your doctor or therapist explaining why. While the questions a business can ask are limited, such a letter may help get an accommodation.
Fake cards online
Question: I found a card online from the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the “Freedom to Breathe Agency.” It says I do not have to wear a mask. Is that card good enough to show the store or business?
Answer: No. That card is not from the DOJ, and there is no governmental “Freedom to Breathe” agency. The card is a fake. The store can probably ask for something from your own healthcare provider that is specific to you and your disability, and your needs.
Rules for government offices
Question: The above rules are for private businesses. Do the same rules apply to governmental offices?
Answer: Not necessarily. It depends on the federal, state, or local rules that apply to the particular office.
Mask policies at work
Do you have questions about mask policies in the workplace? If you do, check out our Mask Policies at Work During COVID-19 handout.
Last Updated/Reviewed: September 21, 2021
Publication Code: HC13
Disclaimer: Disability Rights Texas strives to update its materials on an annual basis, and this handout is based upon the law at the time it was written. The law changes frequently and is subject to various interpretations by different courts. Future changes in the law may make some information in this handout inaccurate.
The handout is not intended to and does not replace an attorney’s advice or assistance based on your particular situation.
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