The coronavirus epidemic has resulted in deep worry and concern throughout the country. As the death toll rises, businesses and governments alike are taking aggressive action by way of mandatory mask policies. While the evidence of the benefits of mask use is substantial, there is a heated debate over the effectiveness and constitutionality of these requirements.
For some, mask requirements violate an individual’s right to make their own health decisions. Others are concerned about health complications that can arise from the required use of masks.
While this area of the law is developing, a number of lawsuits have already sprung up challenging city ordinances and company policies alike related to mandatory mask requirements. To date, few courts have weighed in on whether these requirements violate individual constitutional rights.
The effectiveness of face coverings in preventing the spread of COVID-19 has been hotly debated since the beginning. While the vast majority of medical professionals, including the American Lung Association, urge the public to wear masks, early guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has caused confusion.
In fact, the CDC only issued recommendations for the use of masks in public places in April despite earlier claims that face coverings were unnecessary. While the CDC claims they based their earlier stance on worries that front-line medical personnel would not have the masks they need if the public bought out the supply, this change has led to skepticism from some about the necessity of masks.
Despite this skepticism, the American Lung Association and other expert groups have largely dismissed health concerns related to mask use. There is no evidence that masks result in low oxygen levels. And the risks of carbon dioxide buildup are limited to patients with pre-existing lung problems attempting to wear a specific type of mask.
While there might not be medical evidence that masks result in low oxygen levels, there is little doubt that wearing a mask is physically uncomfortable for some. What’s more, there is limited information on how using masks could affect individuals dealing with panic attacks or other stress-related syndromes.
In general, there are two types of mask mandates: The first involves a state, county, or local municipality requiring masks in certain public places. The second type of mask mandate stems directly from private businesses.
The difference between these types of mandates is important. While certain rights protect the public from government actions, they might not apply to the actions of a private business.
Given the recency of the debate, there is virtually no case law on whether or not mask mandates are constitutional or legal. Proponents claim these mandates are necessary and appropriate during a pandemic, while opponents raise a variety of objections.
The nature of these objections largely depends on the specific mandate in question. After all, the same constitutional grounds that might be relevant to a mandate issued by a state or local government likely will not apply to a private business.
When it comes to objections to mask mandates based on the United States Constitution, most of these objections center on free speech rights enshrined in the 1st Amendment. However, other constitutional grounds may come into play with certain government-issued mask mandates.
It is worth noting that these constitutional objections might apply to governmental entities, but they are unlikely to apply to mask mandates issued by private businesses. The only exception would involve private companies that have assumed the role of a state actor in some way.
A number of arguments regarding the constitutionality of mask mandates relate to First Amendment claims. These objections vary, but they generally allege that mask mandates interfere with the constitutionally protected rights to speech, assembly, and association.
One example of a legal claim based on this argument was filed by four residents of Palm Beach County, Florida. The court rejected this argument, holding that the county mask mandate was based on the rational basis of protecting public health and did not violate any First Amendment rights.
In another case, a Florida court rejected a challenge to a countywide mask mandate on First Amendment grounds, but it focused on slightly different legal arguments. According to the plaintiff, the countywide mask mandate violated several constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to privacy of beliefs. Without going into detail, the court rejected these arguments and held that the mask ordinance did not violate any constitutional rights.
The arguments based on the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment are similar in some way to the arguments based on the 1st Amendment. Those raising these arguments believe that mask mandates deprive business owners or even private citizens of their property rights without due process of the law.
This argument can be difficult, as there is well-established legal precedent that a policy enacted with a legitimate government interest does not violate due process. Some courts have dismissed mask-related lawsuits on these grounds.
However, one of the few successful challenges to government-backed mask mandates was based in part on due process rights violations. A judge in Shreveport, Louisiana, blocked implementation of a city mask mandate citing the violation of due process.
Some of the issues regarding this particular mask mandate were unique, however. For example, the mandate included consequences like revoking a business license or even the elimination of city water service. These consequences may have provided the damage to property interests that many other courts have found lacking in these cases.
One of the most common objections to mask requirements handed down not by government entities but by privately owned businesses is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
One prominent case involving an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim revolves around the Giant Eagle grocery chain based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In total, the grocery chain is facing more than 30 individual lawsuits in federal court based on their zero-tolerance mask policy.
Central to these lawsuits is the claim that Giant Eagle’s mask policy goes beyond the statewide mask mandate issues by Governor Tom Wolf. The grocery chain has responded by denying the allegations and claiming that they have complied with federal law by providing alternative options to shoppers who cannot or will not wear a mask.
The ADA protects Americans from discrimination based on their disabilities, but it does not grant people with disabilities free reign to ignore safety requirements as they see fit. As the United States Justice Department pointed out in June of 2020, the ADA is not a blanket exception from complying with legitimate safety requirements.
Central to an ADA claim is the concept of reasonable accommodation. The ADA requires businesses to take any reasonable steps necessary to accommodate individuals with a disability to prevent discrimination. In the Giant Eagle lawsuit discussed above, the grocery chain claims their efforts to offer curbside grocery pickup or even have an employee shop for customers who cannot wear masks meets their obligation under the law.
Claims under the ADA do not result in financial compensation for the plaintiff. However, if successful, they can allow a plaintiff to recoup their court costs and attorney’s fees. The most important form of relief available in these cases is potential injunctive relief.
If a federal judge finds that a company has violated the ADA, the court could issue an injunction to stop them. In the case of a mask mandate, injunctive relief could include an order requiring a private company to lift their mask requirements.
Not all objections to mandatory mask requirements are based on constitutional rights. Some objections center on the idea that the government entity or elected official that issued the mandate either lacked the power to do so or issued it in a way that it is unenforceable.
For example, the lawsuit based in Louisiana discussed above was not decided purely on constitutional grounds. According to the final order by the court, the judge also found the mayor of Shreveport simply lacked the authority to issue a mask mandate. Similar claims have been raised on the state level in California.
The legal questions surrounding COVID-19 and the related mask mandates are still developing. In fact, few areas of the law are evolving as fast as the questions surrounding these issues.
While you might not have a viable legal claim against a private business for requiring masks, questions remain about the government actors that fail to protect and respect constitutional rights.
At the Marrone Law Firm, LLC, we have an extensive track record of defending the civil rights of our clients. Call us today to discuss your legal options and schedule your initial consultation.
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