AUSTIN (KXAN) — A business can require customers to wear masks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but must still make “reasonable accommodations” so people can access its services, according to a group that provides resources on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As businesses comply with local and now state mask mandates, the Southwest ADA Center said it’s aware that there may be some customers who say they have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks and are telling businesses, “that a refusal to grant an exemption violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Title III of the ADA says businesses, which are referred to as public accommodations, “may impose legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.” Those safety requirements have to be based on actual risks, said Diego Demaya, the Director of ADA Technical Assistance with the Southwest ADA Center.
On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s new mask mandate went into effect, requiring people living in counties with more than 20 active COVID-19 cases to wear a mask. The executive order does exempt people who have medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing face coverings.
“In cities or States imposing mandates that people wear masks in public, there is a compelling argument that a mask policy is based on a legitimate safety requirement — especially in view of current COVID-19 widespread spiking and increasing numbers of people getting the disease,” Demaya said. “Moreover, where there is no governmental mandate, a business can point to guidelines from the Center for Disease Control or other governmental recommendations that masks are necessary for safe operation to support the business’s mask requirement.”
However, businesses cannot just stop there and refuse to serve someone who is not wearing a mask, because the ADA has another requirement that businesses need to make “reasonable modifications” to provide access for those with disabilities. Demaya said examples of that include taking phone or online orders that can be picked up outside or via a drive-through. Some businesses have also let customers make an appointment to shop during times when no one else is in the store, “although this type of accommodation depends on whether the business might suffer undue burden (significant difficulty or expense) on operations for making an individualized policy modification,” Demaya said.
“In sum, despite a national state of emergency, businesses remain obligated to consider alternate means of providing access to their goods and services,” in a way that does not impose an “undue burden” on businesses or compromise safety, Demaya said. He also recommended businesses train staff on how to work with customers who request accommodations.