During the COVID-19 pandemic, now five months and counting, many employers are struggling with unprecedented issues. At the moment, GroupOne Background Screening employees are continuing to work from home and have been doing so successfully throughout this long duration. There are tentative plans for our employees to return to their desks in September, though strict guidelines will be in place to include wearing a mask.

On a regular basis, you read about business customers becoming infuriated because they are asked to wear masks. Which brings up an interesting question: Can your employees deny access to a customer who refuses to wear a mask because of a claimed disability?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a public business cannot discriminate against a customer on the basis of a disability. Pretty simple, right? Not so much. A business has to make sure that disabled patrons can access the premises by providing physical and even digital access. Generally, this rule would prohibit businesses from denying access to disabled individuals who could not wear a mask because of said disability.

As usual, there’s exceptions to the rule. If a disabled person poses a “direct threat to the safety of others,” then the ADA does not require the business to allow access to that individual.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that COVID-19 does pose a direct threat to the safety of others. This means businesses can enforce mandatory mask policies and could deny service to someone who refuses to wear a mask, even if the refusal is based on their disability. It’s probably a good business practice to consider alternative ways to deliver services allowing unmasked customers to still buy your goods.

In terms of your employees, the EEOC states that you can require them to wear a mask, unless an employee has a disability and needs an accommodation related to wearing a mask. In such a case, the employer and employee must attempt to find a reasonable accommodation.

Before denying service to an unmasked customer, businesses should consider alternative ways to accommodate them without exposing other guests. One alternative is for the customer to wear a face shield.

It would be a good idea to post on your website a message that customers must wear a mask, but also state that if a mask cannot be worn for disability reasons, the guest should bring a face shield. The current science states that face shields are not as effective as masks, but they are better than no face covering at all. A business could consider providing face shields to guests, but that could be costly.

When a customer states they cannot wear a mask because of a disability, employers should never ask questions about the disability. It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway – the customer is always right. Accept at face value the customer’s assertion that a disability prevents them from wearing a mask. Simply look for alternative ways to try to accommodate the customer. Even if you cannot find a compromise, trying is better than adding to the already mentioned headlines.

With COVID-19 rules oftentimes changing on a weekly basis, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on both the EEOC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates. Please stay safe!

The information and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.