Enforcing Face Mask Rules for Customers

Can businesses enforce face masks? Here’s what SBOs need to know.


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person wearing face mask inside store covid-19
FAQs for business owners regarding face mask requirements

If you’ve seen the headlines recently, it turns out that getting adults to wear face masks can be a challenging job. Whether you live in an area where businesses are all required to enforce these rules or you simply want to make it a must at your company, actually enforcing face mask rules for customers can be an ongoing battle.

There are situations where smaller mom-and-pop shops have elected to shut down entirely because customers became so belligerent over face mask rules that they were abusive to employees. Your top priority should certainly be keeping your employees safe, but you also have a business to run. Let’s take a look at face mask rules for customers and determine what exactly you can — and can’t — do.

Does everyone need to wear a face mask?

Yes — well, kind of. It’s a frustrating answer, but businesses are understandably worried about customer safety too. And lawsuits! As the owner of a business, you can ultimately make certain demands of customers when it comes to safety and sanitation. That’s why it’s legal for many businesses to adopt and advertise their “No shoes, no shirts, no service” motto. Businesses have the power to deny service to anyone based on just about anything, and you’ve probably seen signage stating just that. However, businesses cannot refuse service if doing so is discriminatory — such as denying service due to a customer’s religion or race.

You can legally require every adult (and children of a certain age) who wants to enter your business to wear a face mask.
So, yes, you can legally require every adult (and children of a certain age) who wants to enter your business to wear a face mask. The child factor gets a little tricky. Certainly, businesses don’t kick infants out of a store because they aren’t wearing shoes, even if there’s a sign that requires it! In the midst of COVID-19, the age of children required to wear masks is often decided at a state or local level. This can regularly change, so make sure you keep up with your local authority’s rules and regulations in regard to face masks with children.

Medical reasons for not wearing a mask

There are some instances when a customer might have a sound medical reason for not being able to wear a mask. These cases are unique, and there’s no singular list of medical conditions that might cover everything. A reasonable customer will likely carry a doctor’s note explaining that they are not capable of staying healthy while wearing a mask. Customers who falsely claim medical excuses are being legally banned from some companies (such as airlines), which is helping to set a precedent for what those with genuine medical conditions can expect.

How to enforce a face mask policy?

The best way to enforce a mask policy is to have plenty of signage:

  • Before a person enters your store
  • Within your store
  • Online

This helps customers avoid embarrassment of getting “called out,” and those who don’t want to wear a mask have the ability to choose where they shop. You can also include this information in your newsletter, on social media, and anywhere else you know your customers might keep up to date with the latest information on your company.

The exact language you use can be simple and direct, or “punny” and cheeky if that aligns with your brand — or a little of both. Language that is straightforward and to the point ensures that nobody will misconstrue what you’re trying to say. For example, a simple “Face masks are required for everyone over the age of 12” is just fine. You can also include your social distancing rules in this verbiage.

Language that is straightforward and to the point ensures that nobody will misconstrue what you’re trying to say.

Who should not wear face masks?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that these groups of people should not wear a face mask:

  • Those under the age of 2
  • Anyone with trouble breathing
  • Anyone who is unconscious or incapacitated (perhaps someone passing out in your store)

It’s the middle example that has been grounds for disputes. Who determines if a person has trouble breathing? Most people would agree that it’s overall easier to breathe without a mask than with one, but that doesn’t mean a person can’t wear a mask.

The reality is that many doctors say there actually isn’t a medical condition that prevents a capable person of shopping inside a store while wearing a mask. This is because a mask doesn’t decrease a person’s oxygen levels. It’s rare that a doctor will write a note that states a person shouldn’t wear a mask, but never say never. If you ask for a doctor’s note and the person produces one, it’s generally in your best legal stance to accept it and let them shop.

Examples of how stores are enforcing face mask rules

Take a look at the big guys to get some mask enforcing inspiration. Walmart has “health ambassadors” in black polos reinforcing this rule. Sam’s Club took to social media to give a heads up prior to mask enforcement. Costco has been one of the earliest and most persistent, and their mandatory card-checker being the first to remind customers has helped.


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