Face mask mandates unlikely to violate civil rights

woman in face mask at work, civil rightsAmidst 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)


gloves and disposable face mask, civil rights

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:


Additional resources:

Face-Covering Requirements and the Constitution

Colorado Mask Order: When Do I Need To Wear A Face Covering? (And More Mask Questions Answered)

Questions & answers about the statewide mandatory mask order

Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings


Dealing with disability discrimination in the workplace

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits disability discrimination against an individual based on their disability. The idea was to ensure that Americans with disabilities would have the same rights as everyone else. This includes all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, and job duties, and applies to businesses with 15 or more employees.

Disability Discrimination In Denver, CO?

The Colorado Civil Rights Act further refines the rights of the disabled, prohibiting discrimination, and applies to businesses with two or more employees.

Reasonable accommodation

If you find yourself disabled while working, you can notify your employer of your disability, and request a reasonable accommodation. The company is required under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodation, as long as it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Otherwise, they are guilty of disability discrimination.

This reasonable accommodation would be provided to an otherwise qualified disabled employee, and would enable him or her to enjoy the same benefits and have the same level of performance as a non-disabled employee. The accommodations may not be exactly what the employee requested, but may be enough for the employee to continue working at a similar level than before.

These accommodations can include:

  • Changing the employee’s work schedule
  • Restructuring of the employee’s job
  • Increasing accessibility to disabled employees
  • Reassigning the employee to a currently vacant position
  • Providing qualified readers and/or interpreters
  • Modifying or obtaining equipment or devices
  • Modifying or obtaining policies, training manuals, or exams

Once the employee requests an accommodation, the employer’s duty to provide one is initiated. Both the worker and the employer should have a conversation on exactly what the employee needs to continue working.

When the employer refuses to address disability discrimination

Because the ADA requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability, refusing to accommodate a disabled employee may be able to create a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA. The accommodation is requested so that the disabled individual will be able to continue his or her employment as if they were not disabled, or as closely as they can.

The first step is to try to resolve the issue internally, within the company. Having a discussion with your supervisor or manager may be all it takes to resolve the issue. If your direct supervisor refuses, or is unaware of the requirement, a conversation with HR may be your next step. If that doesn’t help, you may have to file an internal complaint within the company. This will give the company a chance to remedy the problem. If they don’t, and you do end up filing suit, it will go a long way in demonstrating to the court that you gave the company adequate opportunity to correct the problem and provide an accommodation.

Should a company complaint not resolve the problem, the first step is to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC in order to preserve your right to file a lawsuit later. Once the EEOC has completed its investigation, it will issue a right-to-sue letter. You will then be cleared to file your lawsuit.

The EEOC has a web page with some facts about the ADA.

Your Denver disability discrimination attorney

Dealing with a disability is difficult enough. Working for an employer who doesn’t respect you as a valued member of the company because of your disability can make things even worse. You don’t have to be a victim against ridiculous discrimination tactics.

Call the Civil Rights Litigation Group at (720) 515-6165, or use our online contact form, to schedule your free consultation with us today. We’ll aggressively fight for you in court and make sure your rights are protected and you are treated fairly.

Call Us


Fax: 720-465-1975

Contact Us


Civil Rights Litigation Group

1543 Champa St., Suite #400

Denver, CO 80202

Skip to content