Many communities and private businesses either recommend or require people to wear face masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a mask or other cloth covering may help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from people who are infected to others. Slowing the spread is most likely when wearing masks is widely used in public settings. (CDC, 2020)
Face mask policies are causing concern among people with disabilities who have difficulty wearing a mask, and many have questions about their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although the ADA does not have specific rules that address the required use of face masks by state and local governments or private business owners, it does make clear that:
- state and local government agencies and private businesses are required to make reasonable modifications to allow people with disabilities to access the goods and services they offer.
- the requirement for reasonable accommodations does not include people without disabilities, as they are not protected under the ADA.
“The ADA and Face Mask Policies”, developed by the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, provides answers to common questions and concerns people with disabilities may have about their legal rights to not wear a face mask due to their disability. Refresh your knowledge of the ADA and how it impacts people with disabilities concerned about mask requirements, then read the full brief to learn more.
May a state or local government agency or business require customers to wear a face mask?
A business or government agency can require customers to wear a face mask to limit the spread of COVID-19, based on guidance from the CDC.
Is there a reason a person should not wear a face mask?
The CDC states that a person who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the face mask without assistance should not wear a face mask or cloth face covering. (CDC, 2019)
If a person with a disability is unable to wear a face mask, can they still legally enter a business or government agency?
State and local government agencies and private businesses must consider reasonable modifications to a face mask policy so that the person with the disability can participate in, or benefit from, the programs offered or goods and services that are provided. Examples of reasonable accommodations could include allowing people to:
- wear a scarf, loose face covering, or full-face shield instead of a face mask;
- order online with curbside pick-up or no contact delivery in a timely manner;
- order by phone with curb-side pick-up or no contact delivery in a timely manner;
- wait in a car for an appointment and enter the building when called or texted;
- attend appointments by telephone or video calls.
Note that disability-related documentation is not required to approve an accommodation under the ADA, but employers or businesses may ask for information to establish the right to receive an accommodation.
Are there any situations when an agency or business does not have to provide a reasonable modification to the face mask policy?
There are three reasons under the ADA that a state or local government agency or private business may not have to provide a reasonable modification.
1. Fundamental Alteration
A state or local government agency or private business may not have to provide a reasonable modification if the modification would change the nature of the service, program, activity, goods, services, or facilities. For example, a store does not have to make home deliveries as a reasonable accommodation if they do not offer home delivery services.
2. Undue Burden
A state and local government agency or private business is not required to take any action that it can demonstrate would result in an undue financial or administrative burden. An undue burden is a significant difficulty or expense. For example, a building would not be required to open early for one person as a reasonable accommodation, due to staffing limitations.
3. Direct Threat
A state or local government agency or private business may not have to provide a reasonable modification to the face mask policy if the individual with a disability poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. The determination that the person poses a direct threat must be based on real, specific risks, not on speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.