Can businesses refuse to serve customers who don’t wear masks?

Most businesses across the U.S. have reopened after temporary shutdown orders from state governments earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Differing requirements across cities and states are often unclear, and many people are making personal decisions about when and where to wear masks.

While many businesses are encouraging customers to wear face coverings and to adhere to social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some are requiring patrons to wear them.

Costco is among the retailers with such a requirement. The wholesale corporation began enforcing the policy on May 4.

About two weeks after announcing the mask requirement, a video of a Costco employee repeatedly asking a customer to leave a Colorado store went viral. The customer wasn’t wearing a face covering and said he made the choice because he “woke up in a free country.”

“We know some members may find this inconvenient or objectionable, but under the circumstances we believe the added safety is worth any inconvenience. This is not simply a matter of personal choice; a face covering protects not just the wearer, but others too,” Costco President and CEO Craig Jelinek said in a statement. “Although some may disagree with this policy or question its effectiveness, we’re choosing to err on the side of safety in our shopping environments ... We believe this simple act of safety and courtesy is one that Costco members and employees can undertake together.”

What if you don’t want to wear a mask? Can you be denied service? Is it against your rights as an American citizen to be turned away?

The short answer: yes, you can be denied service if you’re not wearing a mask and your rights are not being infringed upon if that happens on private property.

Private companies have the right to turn customers away, and patrons have the right to choose which establishments they’ll give their business.

“As long as businesses are enforcing that in a nondiscriminatory manner and they are requiring everyone to wear the mask, they have the right on their premises to say, ‘If you want to shop here, you have to wear a mask,’” Davis Senseman, a Minneapolis attorney, told KARE. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what rights we have and who we have them against. That is not something the constitution gives you a right to prevent. You can exercise your right by not shopping at that particular store.”

The rule can be compared to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” standard. Some businesses will serve customers who don’t wear those items. Others won’t. The practice can also be compared to store procedures that require cash-only payments or operate no-return policies.

One urologist in Florida recently had to turn away a customer who refused to wear a mask at the private clinic.

The customer and clinic staff members became frustrated, and each party called the police as the conflict escalated.

“We’re a private property, not an emergency room,” the unnamed health care professional told Vox. "We’re not required to treat him, and he was not having an acute emergency. I think he just had a very poor understanding of what his rights were.”

The urologist asserted the face covering was “not just for his safety. It’s for the safety of those around him.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, wearing face coverings in public can help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 can be transmitted through respiratory droplets when an uninfected person breathes in the droplets from an infected person. Face coverings help stop the spread of those droplets.

And while people are encouraged to stay home if they’re feeling sick, pre-symptomatic cases exist; researchers have said people can become infectious before they start to feel ill. Asymptomatic people also carry the virus and often don’t know they may be spreading it. Face coverings help in both cases.

Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Best Buy, Kroger, Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walgreens, CVS and Publix are among the retailers that have required face masks so far.

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