Updated November 12, 2020
With the recent global spike in COVID-19 cases, the requirement to wear a mask when out in public is becoming more widespread. The increase in mask requirements has increased the number of individuals who claim they are exempt from the requirement due to breathing difficulties covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable accommodations,” this does not mean that people don’t have to wear a mask.
According to Syracuse University’s Burton Blatt Institute, 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. A “direct threat” is a significant risk to the health or safety of others that can’t be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices, or procedures or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services.
For example, if an individual does not wear a mask while exercising indoors, they are potentially exposing other individuals in the gym to COVID-19 if that person is infected. Since mask-wearing is primarily about preventing the spread of the virus to others, not wearing a mask could be seen as a direct threat.
Importantly, considerations on what constitutes a “direct threat” must be made on an individual, case-by-case basis. Safety requirements decided upon by the business must be based on real, specific risks, not on speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.
Health clubs and fitness centers face a particular challenge when dealing with this issue. There is no curbside pickup or contactless delivery for exercise. Ultimately, we strongly encourage you to discuss legal problems such as mask requirements and the ADA with an attorney. Each case is unique, and there is currently no blanket coverage on mask-wearing and disabilities.
The Basics of Masks & Face Coverings
As businesses around the country are reopening, much of the debate is centered around protective face coverings and an individual’s responsibility to use them when social distancing is not feasible.
Currently, the vast majority of U.S. states and a number of countries require individuals wear protective face coverings in public settings such as supermarkets, public transport, and in certain business sectors where social distancing is not possible. Some local governments are taking these mandates even further. For example, Vietnam, Venezuela, and Czech Republic require individuals to wear masks any time they are outside of their home.
With the increase in cases around the United States, parts of the U.K., Brazil, and Russia, there is a possibility that mask requirements will become even more robust in the coming weeks.