Understanding the ADA and Face Mask Requirements

Misleading advice may contribute to confusion and conflict.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Source: lavnatalia/Pixabay

COVID-19 has introduced many new realities to us. One particularly disheartening new reality is the likelihood that each new day will bring us a new viral video of conflict erupting after someone is confronted for not wearing a face mask.

The most sensational conflicts seem to occur in grocery stores, and some have recently utilized a rather specific defense. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been increasingly cited and propagated as a reason for why someone is exempt from wearing a face mask when required to do so. That advice is not accurate.

Most people seem to know that the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. In fact, the ADA was a pivotal piece of legislation that set the stage for opportunity to exist in places where it had not previously existed. Apparently less known, however, is that there are exceptions to the ADA — especially when it comes to public accommodations. Three major exemptions are applicable to the conflict occurring in grocery stores; and they are direct threats, fundamental alterations, and undue burdens.

Section 36.208 of the ADA allows services to be denied when a customer poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. A customer’s opinion on whether or not they are being a threat to others matters little. It is the right of the grocery store to determine whether or not a customer is a threat based on “reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence, to ascertain: the nature, duration, and severity of the risk” (Department of Justice, 2017).

Fundamental alterations and undue burdens tend to overlap in cases of ADA compliance. Section 36.302 protects grocery stores from being required to “take any action that it can demonstrate would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity," and Section 36.104 broadly defines an undue burden as a significant difficulty or expense relative to the overall financial resources of an entity and any parent entities. A grocery store simply cannot modify its physical space to accommodate customers who want to browse the aisles without wearing face masks, nor can it modify its hours of operations and decontaminate everything after customers without face masks breathe throughout the entire store.

A grocery store has the right to require its customers to wear face masks. The ADA does not entitle customers to supersede that right, but the ADA does entitle customers to request reasonable accommodations. Most grocery stores have already made reasonable accommodations in order to protect their workers and comply with health guidelines. Curbside pickup, online ordering, and more personal assistance for customers without Internet service are all reasonable accommodations that have been made.

There is little to no reason for a customer to enter any business and refuse to wear a face mask when that business requires its customers to wear face masks. The ADA is certainly not a reason. However, it is important to remember that we are all trying to navigate a global pandemic while maintaining our livelihoods and/or a sense of normalcy as best we can. It is a difficult time for many of us, and some of us are handling it better than others. Give someone space if they are in obvious distress over wearing a face mask and allow workers to deescalate the situation and safely redirect the person in a professional manner. That is much more important than uploading the next viral video.


Department of Justice. (2010). Title III Regulations Supplementary Information. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/titleIII_2010/titleIII_2010_regulations.htm