While Iowa has not issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn in public places, many businesses have or are considering requiring customers and visitors to wear masks.
Wearing a face covering has become a political signal in the polarizing clash between those who see wearing a mask as a moral responsibility and those who see it as an infringement on their freedom. Consequently, businesses and employers can likely expect some resistance when they establish such a policy, including potential for aggression and violence.
Businesses considering enforcing a mask requirement for customers or visitors should plan carefully.
Have a plan for your employees and enforce your policies
Even in states without mask mandates, employers still have a general duty under OSHA to provide a safe workplace for employees. This may include company policies regarding masks and social distancing. The EEOC has issued guidance stating that generally, employers may require employees to wear masks in the workplace during the pandemic.
Accordingly, we recommend employers have a policy regarding masks in the workplace. Any such policy should be based upon guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state, local, or county governments and departments of health.
Take care to ensure that employees with health conditions or religious limitations that prevent wearing of masks are accommodated. You may require employees to present certification from a healthcare provider for medical conditions preventing them from wearing a mask in the workplace.
If you decide to mandate masks for employees, make masks available to employees and uniformly enforce the policy. Like all other employment policies, employers may discipline employees for failing to wear masks.
Again, employers are cautioned to make sure employees with legitimate medical or religious reasons are accommodated by other means, for example, permitting them to not wear a mask, isolating their workstation, or permitting them to work remotely.
Have a plan for customers or visitors
Before implementing a mask mandate for visitors, make sure your employees understand what to do when confronted with customers or visitors who refuse to wear a mask. Employees should not be in the position of pushing customers or visitors to wear a mask to the point that a customer or visitor threatens violence. The requirement to wear a mask should be treated like other policies, such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”
In fact, on August 24, the CDC issued new guidance to limit workplace violence related to company enforcement of COVID-19 safety procedures. The plan should start with a workplace violence prevention policy. Make sure to distribute your policy to all employees, and make sure your policy includes a statement of the business’s commitment to maintaining a safe working environment free from violence and intimidation, as well as the company's reporting procedure.
We strongly encourage employers to have a person or a team of people available to provide guidance on threatening behavior and educate employees on how to prevent incidents from escalating to violent attacks.
Confirm that your workplace violence policy covers non-employee violence, make employees aware of your company's procedure for reporting customer or visitor threats and aggressions. The policy should also include guidance on when to contact law enforcement to help mitigate and prevent violence.
Violence prevention training
Once you have a workplace violence policy in place, conduct periodic training on violence prevention for all employees, particularly with those most likely to interact with customers or visitors. This training should include education on your emergency response plan and how your employees should react to aggressive or threatening visitors. This response may include securing the business site, contacting law enforcement, informing employees and other customers of the danger, and dealing with a media response. Employees should have access to phones or alarms to use in an emergency, and you may consider identifying a safe area within your establishment for employees to retreat to if they feel unsafe.
Train employees to take specific actions in the event of customer violence. You should have an expert, a reputable security consultant, or someone from local law enforcement, train your employees on how to handle such situations. Make clear to your employees that the recommendations are those of the specified expert and not the employer.
Publicize COVID-19-related policies on your website and physical establishment
Customers often prepare themselves for a visit to an establishment by visiting a business’s website or social media pages. Notify customers and visitors of any policy or procedure changes related to COVID-19 with detailed instructions on your website and social media profiles so that customers and visitors know what to expect.
Utilize signage outside the store or workplace as another line of communication with customers and visitors that no one will be permitted in the store without a face covering and that customers and visitors must practice social distancing inside. The CDC recommends using verbal announcements, signs, and visual cues to promote social distancing and safety initiatives, even before customers or visitors enter a place of business. If possible, supply masks for the customers and visitors before entering.
Politely request compliance
Do not put your employees in a dangerous position of escalating confrontation because of mask enforcement. Generally, employers are not security experts and lack the training and expertise to direct employees on how to react when confronted by a violent customer or visitor. For this reason, instruct your employees on how to politely ask customers and visitors to wear a mask and comply with social distancing orders.
When customers and visitors attempt to enter the store without a mask, employees should politely ask the customer to put on a mask. Employees may also ask persons to leave and return when they have a mask. Again, you may wish to provide spare masks at the front door in such circumstances.
Some customers or visitors have a valid medical reason that they cannot wear a mask. In such circumstances, businesses need not require certification or medical documentation of proof where a customer has asserted such a condition. We recommend simply accepting the statement from the customer or visitor.
Do not escalate the situation when a customer or visitor refuses to wear a mask
When a customer or visitor has been asked, but refuses, to wear a mask and insists on entering the business, employees should remain calm. In any case, and especially if the customer or visitor threatens violence, the employee should not confront the customer or visitor. The employee should discreetly call local law enforcement and allow the police to handle the situation.
Additionally, employees should not attempt to apprehend resistant customers, block customer entry, or attempt to physically force customers to leave. Such action could result in legal action against the employee or business.
Similarly, employees should not get involved in disputes between customers regarding face masks or social distancing. These types of actions are also more likely to lead to physical altercations and provoke violence than to de-escalate the tense situation.
Offer alternative options to minimize contact and promote social distancing
You may consider offering visitors or customers alternative options to visiting your establishment in person. Fewer in-person interactions may reduce the chance for workplace violence. Many businesses have created options for curbside pick-up, personal shopping, home delivery, shopping by appointment, or alternative shopping hours.
The Big Picture
Communication is key. An increasing number of states and cities are requiring face masks to be worn in public to varying degrees. Even where such measures are not mandatory, employers should address the question of masks in the workplace not only with employees but with customers and visitors.
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