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No Shirt, No Mask, No Service?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Can a commercial establishment legally refuse to let you in the door if you're not wearing a protective face mask? Or ask you to leave if you're already inside?

Absolutely. You've probably seen many a sign saying, "No shirt, no shoes, no service." As long as stores aren't violating the federal Civil Rights Act by singling out a class of people for exclusion, they generally make the rules for their property.

They can impose dress codes and behavioral rules. They can ask you to leave, or kick you out, for any non-discriminatory reason.

States and Cities Stepping in With Face Mask Rules

But as the coronavirus continues its relentless spread across the land, store owners in some states and cities don't even have a choice in the face-mask matter. Several states and many cities have instituted rules requiring people over the age of 2 to wear masks when they are in "public settings," which include stores.

Under an order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, people who break the rules in New York could face a fine of up to $1,000. The fine is $300 in Massachusetts, where several cities have their own requirements, including some with the threat of $1,000 fines. The statewide order in Massachusetts specifically states that businesses may refuse entry to anyone who refuses to wear a mask for nonmedical reasons.

The rigid rules have been spreading out of the country's from the large coastal cities to inland municipalities like Minneapolis, which began imposing a strict mask rule on May 26. Anyone inside a Minneapolis store over the age of 2 must now wear a face mask unless they have a medical excuse. Rulebreakers may face fines of up to $1,000.

Stores Setting Their Own Rules

In other parts of the country, however, mask wearing is subject only to governmental advisories and recommendations. And that means that stores are free to set their own rules.

When stores have chosen to set mask-wearing rules, as Costco did on May 4, the result has sometimes been conflict. Some people believe that the coronavirus risk has been overblown and the governmental response to it too strict. They believe measures like face-mask requirements trample on their constitutional freedoms.

These people are correct in saying that the wearing of masks inside stores is a question of rights — but generally, it's a question of the store owner's rights. Again, a store is private property and the owner can set up any reasonable nondiscriminatory rules governing who can come in. They can even refuse entrance to someone who is wearing a mask, as several bar and store owners have done.

The risk for businesses, of course, is an economic one. Companies that began requiring face masks are trying to strike a balance between providing greater safety for their customers and losing business from those who don't like the rules.

Costco might be losing some business from a boycott that's been organized in opposition to their face-mask rule. But it seems unlikely that they'll be sued.

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