Can Businesses Require Clients & Customers To Wear Masks?

Questions about Covid-19, how to handle Covid compliance and best protect a business, its employees and customers or clients are still something very much top of mind with business owners. It can be difficult to break through all the noise and determine what’s a mandate, what’s legally acceptable and make an informed decision about the best course of action; there’s a lot of information out there, some credible and some not. 

A common question from small businesses is: “Can I require my clients and customers to wear a mask?” The answer is yes. Keeping up with the mandates can be difficult, and many businesses find themselves in a situation where they are unsure about how to move forward, some wanting to require masks for customers and clients, but not sure if they can absent a mandate on the federal, state or local level. Companies can require that customers and clients wear masks even if there is no government mandate requiring masks. Similar to requiring vaccinations, if you’re a small business you have some leeway in implementing policies around mask mandates. 

Currently, the only mask mandate in Virginia is geared around wearing masks in K-12 school settings. In August, the governor announced a Public Health Emergency Order requiring universal masking in all indoor settings in Virginia's K-12 schools. Outside of that, Virginia businesses are pretty much free to make mask policies as they see fit, provided there are no local mask mandates to follow. 

There are a lot of considerations that come into play when deciding on a mask policy. Mandate masks or not, how will employees react to the policy, how will clients and customers react to the policy, are you taking all the steps necessary to protect your employees and your clients and customers? Do businesses have to provide masks to customers if they are required by a company policy?  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has some guidance on masks which many businesses are using as a guide or starting point in developing policies for customers and clients. Virginia’s final permanent standard for businesses (originally the Emergency Temporary Standard or Virginia ETS Standard) regarding Covid-19 precautions encourages companies to comply with the CDC recommendation. The main takeaways from that guidance are:

  • If you are not fully vaccinated and over 2, you should wear a mask in indoor public places.
  • In general you don’t need to wear a mask in outdoor settings, however in areas with high numbers of Covid-19 cases you should consider wearing a mask.
  • Individuals with compromised immune systems should wear a mask in public places, whether indoors or outdoors.
  • If you are in a geographic area of high transmission, you should wear a mask in indoor public places.

One prominent issue that businesses are facing when they mandate masks for customers and clients is how does your business handle anti-mask guests? There have been increased reports, and some well-publicized cases of customers reacting inappropriately, hostile or belligerent when asked to comply with mask mandates. Businesses need to think carefully about how to handle a situation where an anti-mask guest causes a scene and put a plan in place to help protect employees and diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. 

Here are some steps to consider when thinking about requiring masks for customers and clients and handling anti-mask visitors: 

  • You are permitted to require guests in your business to wear masks. Private businesses can decide whether or not to allow customers or clients in if they are not wearing masks. You will have to take into account guests who are not wearing masks because they need to be accommodated.
  • Get your policy out there. You should provide notice to clients, customers and guests prior to their arrival of your mask policy. This will help reduce uncertainty and confusion and hopefully limit situations where there is a disturbance from a guest who doesn’t agree with the policy. Post signs on the doors at the entrance to your space and in areas people will easily see when they enter your property. Make sure to include the statement that you reserve the right, or have the right, to refuse service to anyone not complying with your mask policy. You could also have a staff member near the entrance to let visitors coming in know of the policy. Be specific with your signs and statements about the consequences of not following the mask policy - you will be asked to leave for refusal to wear a mask. While not likely to be a government requirement at this point, it may be helpful to have masks available at the entrance or provided to anyone who comes in without one. 
  • Get your staff on board. Explain to employees why the policy is in place, this will help get them to buy in and enforce the policy with clients and customers. You’ll want to give them any training they may need on how to handle guests coming in, what to say about the policy and their role in implementing it (maybe it’s reminding people they need a mask, or handing out masks to people that don’t have them). Give them some guidance on how to politely deal with visitors, requesting that they wear a mask, and a procedure to deal with any clients or customers who refuse to wear a mask. 
  • Accommodate and clients or customers as needed. Some guests may have underlying medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask (asthma, pulmonary issues, etc.), and how to accommodate or handle people in these situations is something to think about in advance. It’s unlikely someone is carrying around a doctor's note stating they don’t have to wear a mask, so asking for one probably won’t be very effective and isn’t the best way to handle this. In these cases think about implementing some alternatives to providing the visitors with what they want; it could be online options, or curbside pickup, or simply your rule is that anyone who tells you they have a medical condition doesn’t have to wear a mask in your space (just know that people will likely use that as an excuse to not wear one even when they don’t have a medical condition). Depending on your business you may need to comply with regulations and laws around providing accommodations, so carefully consider your options and compliance.  
  • Deal with clients and customers who refuse to comply. A circumstance may arise where a guest simply refuses to wear a mask regardless of your stated policy. Social or political objections to mask policies do not allow your visitors to refuse to wear a mask and not abide by your policy. Plan for these situations in advance and communicate a clear plan to your employees on how to handle it. A canned response or phrase is a good idea, for example, “If you refuse to wear a mask I’ll have to contact my manager to discuss our policy with you.” The best course of action is to have management handle these interactions, don’t put that burden on a front line employee. The bottom line is if a client or customer refuses to comply with the policy they should be asked to leave, escorted to the door if necessary and told they are welcome to return if they comply with the mask requirement, or when the requirement is dropped. Regardless of what the visitor does, avoid raising your voice and physically touching anyone. Your last resort is calling the authorities and to treat the situation as an incident where someone is trespassing on your property. 

Mask policies should be carefully thought out and implemented and the best practice is to adjust them as any regulations and guidelines change. Most importantly, make the best decision possible to protect your employees and clients and customers. 


Have questions about Covid-19 vaccination policies or employee policies in general, or want to discuss any legal or risk management questions? Contact us to schedule a free consultation.



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