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Is A Mandatory Mask Rule A Premises Liability Issue?

Those in Florida and the rest of the United States find themselves struggling against the most significant threat in the 21st century so far. The COVID-19 outbreak that first started in China became a global pandemic, and now the United States is the hardest-hit nation on Earth for it, with Florida being one of the epicenters in the country.

As a result, it has been impossible for regular, daily life activities to take place with no changes. School schedules have been thrown into chaos, and working from home has become the new normal for businesses that can facilitate it. For those businesses that can’t, such as retail operations and hair salons, social distancing and the use of masks are becoming store policies.

It’s true that wearing a face mask can feel restricting and even uncomfortable at times, but it is a necessary measure to combat COVID-19. However, can a brick-and-mortar business legally enforce such a policy? Or are they injuring you through negligence when they do so, thus giving you the right to sue them for premises liability? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is Premises Liability?

Premises liability is the legal concept of negligence that arises in harm, paving the way for legal consequences. It means that the owners of a property, whether that is a private residence or a business open to the public, have a legal responsibility to take all reasonable precautions to ensure a safe environment. This is known as duty of care, and premises liability comes up when a property owner or manager knowingly breaches that responsibility.

For example, an amusement park ride such as a roller coaster is found to require repair, but the managers, not wanting to lose income from the day’s rides, ignore warnings to fix the problem. If the ride continues to operate and an accident occurs, injuries or even death can happen as a result, and that is premises liability. The owners knew the ride was a risk but chose to ignore that fact, causing harm to others. If proof of this, such as eyewitness accounts from employees about orders to ignore the repairs, is available, this makes for a strong case in court to successfully sue for personal injury or wrongful death, depending on the outcome.

The Mask Question

So does a store creating a mandatory mask policy commit a knowing act of negligence that harms the public and leaves them open to a premises liability lawsuit? In the majority of cases, the answer is no.
A store may, within legal reason, create its own policies and enforce them. Some pet stores, for example, may allow dogs and other animals onto the premises, while other establishments such as restaurants usually are legally obliged not to let animals inside due to health regulations.

In the same way, when there is a general health emergency, businesses may create new policies following health guidance to maintain a safer environment. Work-from-home setups for some white-collar companies are examples of health-related policies in action. Mandatory masks as an individual business policy are another.

When a business decides to follow emergency health guidance, it acts in accordance with public safety measures. This need for public health and safety often overrides individual freedom. To cite one example, it is illegal to consume a lot of alcohol then drive afterward because drunk driving is a threat to others on the road. Even though a driver has the freedom to drink alcohol, that cannot be said for driving while intoxicated without facing legal consequences.

The Reverse Is True

However, for people who are concerned about becoming infected with COVID-19, premises liability can work in their favor. In the same way that a restaurant is considered negligent and leaves itself open to legal action if they allow sick employees to handle food, a business that knowingly lets a COVID-19-positive employee continue to interact with customers may be sued.

This is only possible, however, if proof of negligence can be presented. If another customer who is infected but unaware of it spreads contagion in the environment, this is not the same thing as a manager knowingly telling a COVID-19 employee to get back to work. So while a mandatory mask law may be viewed by some as infringing on individual freedoms, if a real public health issue is in play, the law overrides the infringement.