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Got a medical condition? Mask mandate has limits

Staff Writer | August 10, 2020 1:09 AM

The Justice Department has issued an advisory on cards and flyers circulating that falsely claim to exempt people from wearing face masks.

Some of the false cards read: “Wearing a face mask poses a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you.”

Many Idahoans who do not wear a mask for medical, political, or personal reasons have cited the Americans with Disabilities Act for exemption.

However, the current North Idaho mask mandate does not require masks for those with a medical condition, nor does it require documentation of such a condition.

According to the mandate issued by Panhandle Health District:

“Facial coverings are not required for the following circumstances … Persons with medical conditions, mental health conditions, or disability that prevent them from wearing a face covering. A person is not required to provide documentation demonstrating that the person cannot tolerate wearing a face covering.”

It also states that masks are not required for persons “whose wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work, as determined by … workplace safety guidelines.”

Katherine Hoyer, communications officer for PHD, encouraged the public to read the current mandate and do their best to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“We already have those exemptions for medical conditions,” she said. “Our concern is bringing down the rising numbers, and that happens with behavior changes.”

Regarding mask mandates and the ADA, Benjamin Earwicker, chief administrator of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, a state administrative law agency for discrimination cases, stated: “Regardless of the pandemic, businesses still have to comply with the ADA.”

In Idaho, the HRC, within the Idaho Department of Labor, is responsible for investigating and enforcing discrimination law, including the ADA.

The ADA is a complex 1990 federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. The ADA requires most businesses to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees and accessibility for publicly offered services.

The HRC website reads: “Our Purpose: To investigate complaints by individuals who claim they have experienced a discriminatory practice in the areas of employment, housing, education and public accommodations.”

The commissioners who administer HRC policy are appointed by the governor.

When it comes to the ADA and COVID-19, Earwicker said, “We’re receiving a whole range of inquiries and complaints. Our baseline is Idaho statute regardless of the situation. Our analysis is consistent with any disability inquiry.”

In regard to mask mandates and the ADA, he said, “We’re delicately addressing it. It’s tricky and where it gets trickier is employment situations. They still have to comply with federal law. There is not a lot a business can do to ask about the nature of a disability. But to get accommodation, they must have a qualifying disability.”

Businesses that ask for masks still must reasonably accommodate those who cannot wear them. “For a business, accommodation can be any alternative offered to the public, such as delivery or curbside service. It’s where they have no alternative that they run afoul of the law.”

Earwicker described the HRC as “in many ways, a precursor to court.”

“For us the process typically begins with a complaint,” he said. “We then have a fact-finding legal analysis. Remember, to get accommodation you must have a qualifying documented disability.”

“Our neutrality is a message I want to get out,” Earwicker said. “We are tasked with both fact and law.”

Those who can not wear a face mask due to an existing condition are encouraged to discuss options and be flexible in seeking accommodation.

Businesses or individuals with concerns can reach out to the Idaho HRC for further guidance.