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Can a business set its own rules for social distancing and masks?

COVID-19 safety is going to be important for businesses during this back-to-school season. In general, private business owners can implement their own rules regarding masks as long as those rules do not conflict with federal, state, or local policies. Requiring a mask is similar to a "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy, but enforcement can be more complex. Business owners may request that customers wear masks and post signs encouraging the use of masks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends creating visual cues, or marks, on the floor to assist with social distancing.

At the federal level, the CDC recommends that all unvaccinated people wear a face mask in public or when around other people. According to the CDC, vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible or when there will be close contact with others. A vaccinated person with no symptoms can still spread the virus, and wearing a mask can help prevent that from happening.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers provide masks to employees and require anyone who enters the workplace, including customers and other non-employees, to wear a face covering. This suggestion does not apply to those under the age of 2 or those actively eating and drinking.

Each state has slightly different rules and restrictions regarding what businesses can and cannot do to require masks. Some cities and localities may require that individuals continue to wear face coverings in public. It is important for business owners to ask a lawyer or check the rules in their area about mask mandates before developing their own rules.

What if customers and employees don't abide by the rules or harass others who wear masks?

Unfortunately, not everyone is receptive to wearing a mask in retail establishments and businesses. Some may outright refuse to wear a mask or they may harass or bully others who do wear a mask. In general, you can take the following steps to deal with this sensitive issue.

1. Know the laws in your area.

Before implementing a mask mandate for employees or requiring customers to mask up, you need to be sure that the policies in your area allow you to do so. You should also be aware that not everyone can wear a mask due to health conditions or disabilities. You may need to have a policy in place that accommodates those employees and customers who cannot wear a mask.

2. Be proactive about your policies.

Post signs at your business so customers are aware of the policy. Doing so can help reduce confusion and prevent uncomfortable situations. You may also want to provide notice in other ways, such as through email, on your website, social media, and other marketing channels. Having single-use masks available for customers as needed or upon request can help ensure people who forgot to bring one can still abide by your policy.

3. Ensure your staff has adequate training.

Your staff needs to know what the policies are and they need to follow them as well. Staff should also be trained to handle customers who do not comply with mask requirements. You may want to include mask compliance issues, as well as other COVID-19 related policies, as part of your business's Emergency Action Plan or Business Contingency Plan.

4. Respond to hostile customers with care.

Junior employees can gently remind customers of the policy. If a customer refuses to wear a mask or becomes hostile after a gentle reminder, employees should enlist a manager or someone specially trained to diffuse the situation. Designating a manager or trained staff member to respond will keep actions consistent.

The manager should talk with the customer away from others, if possible, to explain the policy, and to ask if the customer needs an accommodation for a disability. The manager should be knowledgeable about state or local laws that permit the business to have its own mask policy. The customer may be asked to leave if they do not comply as businesses may refuse service to anyone in most circumstances. If the situation escalates, the manager may notify the authorities, just as they would if a trespasser entered the business location.

Is the level of staffing or inventory adequate for the busy season?

The back-to-school season is supposed to be busy, and there's more to being ready than just making sure your safety policies are up to the task for 2021. Regular business needs, like having enough inventory to meet product demands, or enough staff scheduled, will also be important parts of a successful back-to-school season. 

While it is difficult to predict actual demand, the ability to quickly order supplies or adjust staff schedules can be helpful. Having clear contracts with vendors and understandable policies for employees can go a long way to ensure both are covered.

Have you updated your training, policies, and Emergency Action Plan since 2020?

COVID-19 has brought a lot of unique policy requirements, so now is a good time to take a look at your Employee Handbook, training documents, and Emergency Action Plan to ensure they are up to date and remain applicable. For many employees, experiencing high volumes of customers these days can be more stressful than prior years. Employees may benefit from training on new policies to address these new challenges caused by the pandemic.

If you have questions about getting ready for the back-to-school rush, contact a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney to get your questions answered. You can also use the Rocket Lawyer Mobile App to get help on any device, from anywhere.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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