Amidst all the civil rights protests lately, one divisive topic has emerged: Is it a violation of my civil rights for the government to require me to wear a face mask in public? In short, probably not. Because of the rapid increase in Covid-19 infections, many states have issued temporary laws, requiring all citizens (over the age of 11, in Colorado) to wear face masks. In Colorado, it applies while “entering or moving within any public indoor space [or] while using or waiting to use public (buses, light-rail) or non-personal (taxis, car services, ride-shares) transportation services.” You aren’t required to wear them in private residences or when outdoors, unless you are waiting for public transportation. Given the public-available data on the Covid pandemic, face-mask orders probably bear a reasonable relationship to the emergency and are probably legal, based on pre-existing case law.
Does the government have the legal authority to mandate face masks?
Probably. Since we are in the middle of a public health emergency, state and local officials have the authority to issue and enforce reasonable rules of safety. According to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, “This has been upheld repeatedly. No one has the right to expose the community to communicable disease.” Likewise, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has emergency powers that grant him the right to issue the face mask mandate, and that authority is upheld by the Colorado state constitution (Article IV, Section 2). A law passed by the legislature: Colorado Disaster Emergency Act, CRS 24-33.5-701 also supports this.
A state government’s power to issue orders that are reasonably related to the protection of other citizens during public health emergencies has also been upheld by the Supreme Court. This has been the case since 1905, when the Supreme Court ruled on Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The case involved a smallpox outbreak and local authorities mandated that everyone had to be vaccinated against it or risk a fine (unless medically unable to do so safely). The court upheld this authority, saying, “Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”
“The public health expert consensus is that wearing a mask in public is a key countermeasure in combating the coronavirus pandemic because it helps slow the infection rate. Even cloth face masks can help curb community spread of coronavirus, in part by reducing transmission by people who are infected but experience no symptoms. The coronavirus pandemic is the kind of extraordinary circumstance when the public good outweighs individual inconvenience.” (Law.com)
To date, over 500,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, so it is likely within each state government’s authority to mandate necessary requirements issued for the purpose of protecting the health and safety of those who have not yet been infected, so long as those requirements relate directly to the cause at hand. Since Covid-19 has been shown to be spread by people breathing out tiny droplets that may contain the virus, face masks are likely to be considered a reasonable precaution. Face mask requirements are even more likely to be considered reasonable considering that many people who have the virus are asymptomatic and may unknowingly spread it to others. To date, the Supreme Court has had the opportunity to revisit this issue, several times, but has declined in all but religious liberty cases, where certain government’s have been deemed to have applied face mask mandates inequitably to religious institutions and/or religious activates, as compared to similarly situated secular institutions/activities.
Can I be required to wear face mask if I have a medical condition?
For those people “who cannot medically tolerate a face covering,” the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that businesses, government entities, etc. make reasonable accommodations. Those may include offering delivery or curb-side pickup of things like groceries and goods, or offering online options for accessing services such as renewing a license. However, they aren’t required to allow you in their space without a mask, as that could endanger others.
The definition for those medically exempt from the order is pretty narrow: “a person who has trouble breathing or anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face-covering without assistance.” It doesn’t include people who believe the mask will cause them to breathe in carbon dioxide or lower their oxygen levels.
The ADA has also issued a warning against using fake mask exemption cards that have flooded the internet. “The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.” (ADA website)
Can a business refuse me entry if I won’t wear a mask?
Not only can a business refuse you entry, but they may be required to as they are responsible for upholding the state and local laws for face masks and other safety measures. Again, they have to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities, so if you suffer from a disability, you should be prepared to make a specific request for accommodation that will not create an undue burden on the business. But as long as the business is enforcing the mask requirement equally to everyone, they are probably not violating your rights. Businesses are also required to post signage stating that masks are required. If you attempt to enter a business without a mask, you could be subject to allegations of trespassing. Likewise, businesses that do not enforce the ordinance may lose their license.
Can my employer require me to wear face masks?
Because of the mandate, employers must require all employees to wear masks. They have to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities and should offer protection to those at a greater risk of severe illness due to Covid-19. Some employers may require employees to wear additional protective gear, such as gloves, and some are required to per Public Health Order 20-31.
If you are in a job that requires specific high-end protective gear like N95 masks, employers in Colorado are required to provide them. For all other businesses, government entities, etc. the Safer at Home public health order from March states that employers shall “provide appropriate protective gear like gloves, masks, and face coverings.” The newest public health order states that employers “should” provide protective equipment, but doesn’t specifically mandate it.
Regardless, employers are still required to provide workplaces “free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm” under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause. This is interpreted differently for each business and can include things like putting up clear barriers to protect employees who come in close contact with the public.
Other resources on our blog:
- Paid time off and your rights during the coronavirus
- Coronavirus and your employee rights
- Dealing with disability discrimination in the workplace.