Mask Reticence and Refusal in Clients
By: Abood Shebib, Esq.
With no statewide mask mandate, many businesses in North Florida have found themselves having to enforce masking in public with regard to their patrons or employees, whether out of a desire to follow current CDC recommendations on masking in public or in light of some county or city orders requiring masking. In a time fraught with stressed customers and emotions running high, this has placed businesses in a precarious position of sometimes having to confront customers, the lifeblood of a business, when they refuse to comply with local law or the business’s efforts to maintain as safe an environment as possible to continue functioning in light of Covid-19 and the fear associated with Covid-19.
Indeed, only a handful of local and county governments in northern Florida have instituted some measure of masking requirement in public. These include the counties of Alachua, Leon, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole as well as the cities of Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, and Pensacola. Some of the city and county orders place the onus on businesses to ensure individuals visiting the business comply with the mask mandate (for example, Jacksonville’s June 29, 2020, Emergency Executive Proclamation 2020-005, which was recently extended by Proclamation 2020-007 on September 27, 2020) while others place no responsibility for enforcement on local businesses.
Adding to the potential confusion in customers, local governments were suspended from collecting fines associated with mask mandates in Florida Governor Executive Order 20-244, issued September 25, 2020, which moved the state into Phase 3 of Florida’s “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s Recovery” reopening plan. Customers may not appreciate that while the executive order suspended collection of mask fines, it did not invalidate existing mask mandates across the state nor did it bar local governments from otherwise requiring masks or enforcing existing mask mandates.
A potential result of this current situation is that many customers visiting North Florida businesses may be confused or may wrongly believe they need not comply with mask requirements in light of the suspension of the collection of mask fines. What should a business do when a customer refuses to wear a mask, and how should a business work to comply with CDC safety recommendations while still welcoming customers? This is especially important in light of situations here in Florida concerning mask mandates resulting in violence over masks between customers and between employees and customers. This article sets forth some considerations to keep in mind to help defuse tense situations that may arise in encouraging customers to wear masks either to comply with local laws or the business’s own policies in place to implement CDC safety recommendations.
Don’t Let it Get Personal: Let Your Signs do the Talking
Customers are less likely to be offended when reminded to wear a mask if the reminder comes from a sign versus an employee or fellow customer. Signs placed outside stores serve as the first opportunity to let customers know the business requires customers to wear a mask. Having signs to remind customers initially helps set expectations for customers regarding masks without risk of confrontation; no customer is going to argue with a sign. Likewise, having generalized announcements made periodically in the business as a general reminder of mask requirements is another way to reinforce the business’s mask policy without making it personal or focused on any particular customer. Indeed, the CDC has recommended using signs, announcements, as well as visual cues at store entrances as a way to do so before a customer even enters the business. Restaurants and similar businesses may wish to consider having contact information visible on outdoor signs to provide customers who do not want to wear a mask a way to speak with an employee regarding the matter and as an alternative way to provide curbside service.
Seek but Do Not Force Compliance
Customers who enter a business but refuse to comply with a mask mandate or policy may be asked politely if they need a mask as well as reminded of the law or the business’s mask policy. Having a supply of masks on hand to offer one to an unmasked customer can be a good way to politely remind the customer of the mask requirement while at the same time offering them an easy, convenient opportunity to comply with the mandate or policy.
Beyond a polite reminder, it is not recommended businesses require their employees to seek to enforce mask mandates or policies, avoiding escalations and leaving the same to law enforcement, discussed further below. Moreover, businesses should bear in mind many customers may not wear masks due to genuine medical conditions – how businesses should deal with such medical claims are beyond the purview of this article though Littler attorneys are available to discuss the same.
Keep Calm and Let Professionals Handle Enforcement
As noted above, when a customer insists on not complying with a mask mandate or policy, the business should not escalate matters by insisting on compliance or barring access to the business. Law enforcement is trained to handle enforcement of laws and trespassing. This is especially appropriate in light of the potential for mask arguments to result in violence, as evident in several viral videos of such incidents in Florida.
Rather, the business should discreetly call law enforcement to report a violation of a mask mandate or the insistence of a customer not to comply with a business’s mask policy. Refusing customers could be cited for criminal trespass, and, as an example, as of August 6, 2020, the Pensacola Police Department had issued two trespass warnings involving face masks (Pensacola adopted an ordinance requiring face coverings on June 26, 2020), including one case where a customer became angry and threw water all over a store counter when reminded he was required to wear a mask in the store. Calling law enforcement avoids such escalations and ensures professionals with training in de-escalating conflict and enforcing laws respond while keeping employees and other patrons as safe as possible.
The foregoing is a non-exhaustive list of considerations businesses should bear in mind in formulating mask policies as well as a plan and procedure regarding what to do when a customer or client refuses to comply with local mask mandates or the business’s mask policy. Planning ahead and training staff is critical. To that end, we hope this article has stimulated thought as to what employers can do when dealing with mask issues. For now, we hope our clients and friends stay safe in dealing and living with Covid-19, and we stand by ready to help employers unmask the complexities that can arise in these situations.