A “face mask exempt card” shared on social media invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act and claims to excuse people from wearing face masks. But the group behind the card — “Freedom to Breathe Agency” — is not a government agency, and federal officials say the ADA “does not provide a blanket exemption” from requirements to wear masks.
A purported “face mask exempt card” has circulated online in recent weeks, suggesting that people can use it — and its citation of federal law — to avoid wearing face masks in public.
But the card is not government-issued and does not give people permission to simply flout face mask requirements. Health officials advise — and many governors mandate — that people wear face masks in public settings to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A recent version posted by the musician Ted Nugent on Facebook was shared more than 4,000 times.
“I am exempt from any ordinance requiring face mask usage in public,” the card claims. “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.”
The card includes a logo for the “Freedom to Breathe Agency” and says “denying access” to a business or organization “will be reported to FTBA for further actions.” The card includes a phone number to report violations of the ADA; some of the versions also include a logo for the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the implication that the FTBA is a government agency — and that it has enforcement powers (“further actions”) — is wrong. It’s actually a group that says its mission is to “stop face mask orders and human rights oppression from spreading nationwide and globally.”
On June 30, the Justice Department warned against such “[i]naccurate flyers or other postings … regarding the use of face masks and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”
“Many of these notices included use of the Department of Justice seal and ADA phone number,” the department said.
It added: “The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises people to wear cloth face masks in public settings, does note that such coverings shouldn’t be worn by “children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”
Likewise, the Southeast ADA Center — a project of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University — says some disabilities may prevent people from wearing face masks.
But that doesn’t mean anyone citing a disability, or showing the viral “exempt card” for that matter, can simply bypass face mask requirements enforced by businesses or government agencies.
The Southeast ADA Center said in a recent brief that “[i]f a person with a disability is not able to wear a face mask, state and local government agencies and private businesses must consider reasonable modifications to a face mask policy so that the person with the disability can participate in, or benefit from, the programs offered or goods and services that are provided.”
“A reasonable modification means changing policies, practices, and procedures, if needed, to provide goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to an individual with a disability,” the center added.
Examples might include allowing a person to order online or by phone with curbside pickup; permitting someone to wait for an appointment in the car; or carrying out appointments by phone or video.
“What the ADA basically mandates is that they have to consider serving the customer in another way,” the center’s project director, Vinh Nguyen, told PolitiFact. “They don’t have to allow entry into the actual store.”
The center’s brief also emphasizes that the ADA’s “requirement to modify a policy, practice, or procedure does not” pertain to individuals without disabilities. (That said, the brief notes that “[g]enerally, guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice has not allowed asking for documentation [regarding a disability] for accommodations at businesses where you would have a brief interaction, such as grocery stores or pharmacies.”)
In short, businesses and organizations requiring face masks are expected to accommodate people with disabilities that impede their ability to wear a face mask — but that accommodation may not always mean physical access to the establishment without a mask. And the supposed “face mask exempt card” spread across social media doesn’t permit anyone to simply be “exempt from any ordinance requiring face mask usage in public,” as it wrongly claims.
“The ADA and Face Mask Policies.” Disability Issues Brief, Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University. 8 Jul 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings.” 28 Jun 2020.
Chappell, Bill. “More Than 20 U.S. States Now Require Face Masks In Public.” NPR. 10 Jul 2020.
“COVID-19 ALERT: Fraudulent Facemask Flyers.” Press release, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina. 25 Jun 2020.
“The Department of Justice Warns of Inaccurate Flyers and Postings Regarding the Use of Face Masks and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Press release, U.S. Department of Justice. 30 Jun 2020.
Funke, Daniel. “A ‘face mask exempt card’ doesn’t exempt you from wearing a mask in public.” PolitiFact. 26 Jun 2020.
“Resources.” Freedom to Breathe Agency. Accessed 14 Jul 2020.