Few topics have generated as much conversation in recent months as mask mandates. Established in response to the ongoing pandemic, states across the U.S. – including California – now require people to wear face coverings while indoors or around others in public.
Of particular concern for small businesses, particularly restaurants, are the legal implications of denying service to a customer that refuses to wear a mask. Online, claims the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects every individual with a disability from this mask mandate have spread quickly. But as Michael Karlin, partner at the Karlin Law Firm, explained to San Diego Magazine recently, these types of claims are not just an over-simplification of the law, but potentially quite off-base.
The ADA and face mask-related lawsuits
When protesting the face mask requirement, some individuals have cited the ADA while threatening to sue a restaurant that enforces the rule. Their argument is that California’s order exempts persons with a disability or medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. Denying someone service for refusing to wear a mask is, therefore, a violation of the ADA, the logic goes.
But that’s not really how the ADA works, Karlin said.
For one, ADA protections are specific to each individual’s disability. In order for someone to have a legitimate claim, they would have to not only have a disabling medical condition but also demonstrate that the disability is directly impacted by wearing a mask.
Even that isn’t enough for a successful lawsuit. Karlin pointed out two important conditions:
- If a restaurant makes reasonable accommodations to still serve a customer that medically cannot wear a mask – such as by offering curbside pickup – that would likely satisfy the ADA
- The ADA makes an exception when serving the customer poses a safety or health risk
Both of these caveats make any ADA-related mask lawsuit an “uphill battle,” Karlin said.
Lawsuits could still be filed – even if unsuccessful
Nothing stops an individual from filing a lawsuit claiming ADA violations, so restaurants and small businesses could find themselves facing legal action. However, Karlin does not expect many of these to bubble up, due to the low odds of success, the potential cost and likely minimal damages.
Still, such a suit could leave the defendant on the hook for legal costs, even if the case goes nowhere. This resource demand could be particularly damaging in the current economic climate, where business is sluggish.
“Just continue to have a mask policy in the interest of public health, and if you can offer curbside or pickup as an alternative I think the risk is fairly low that someone would be successful,” said Karlin.