Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Q&A: Are Face Mask Requirements Legal?


Many businesses say customers must wear face masks, or they'll be asked to leave. That's in addition to state and county officials who've mandated face coverings. As we heard earlier, some Americans think those requirements are unconstitutional. But are they? Lindsay Wiley runs the Health Law and Policy Program at American University and joins us now.

Hi, there.

LINDSAY WILEY: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is this medical case for wearing them. What's the legal basis for making people cover their faces?

WILEY: State and local governments have really quite broad authority, particularly in a public health emergency like this, to issue emergency orders. We're seeing some potential legal issues arise, though, regarding how these orders are being adopted, whether they're following the correct political process, whether it's the right part of government that's issuing the orders. And then we're also seeing some court challenges filed, arguing that these orders violate individual rights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm sure you also saw the widely publicized story of American Airlines kicking off a passenger from one of their planes after he refused to wear a mask. And I guess that raises the question - what businesses can require in the private sector. Did they have complete discretion?

WILEY: Business owners do have quite a lot of authority to require patrons and customers and employees, as well, to adopt face coverings as a protective measure. Where conflicts come in is in situations where the patron, for example, perceives the mask order to be coming from the business itself rather than from government. So we're actually seeing some business owners and managers, as well, urge local governments or state governments to adopt mandatory mask requirements as a way of taking the pressure off of them. I think a lot of business owners would like to be able to point to the government and say, if you don't like our rules, take it up with the mayor, instead of being positioned as requiring the masks themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to touch again on the idea of mask-wearing becoming political. Are there other examples in the history of public health and safety where we see these kinds of tensions between scientists and doctors and the public and, you know, particular political affiliation?

WILEY: Absolutely - seatbelt laws, motorcycle helmet laws, rules about who can sell cigarettes and where people can smoke them, even the so-called Big Gulp ban in New York City. These public health rules are often seen as paternalistic. Mask mandates are being framed that way as well, but that's not quite right. The message that wearing a mask protects other people isn't really getting through for some folks. So we're seeing a lot of rhetoric about how it should be a personal choice to decide to take a risk instead of focusing on how we don't know who's infected and could be spreading the virus to others.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, right now, we're seeing sort of the virus running rampant in the United States. And we know from health officials that wearing a mask is one of the ways in which we as individuals can actually help to control this pandemic. What do you think should happen going forward?

WILEY: I think the focus on masks is worth discussing. It's a commonsense step that people can take. But I hope that people don't get too distracted by the mask issue alone and let that distract them from being angry at the government for failing to fund more testing and tracing so that we can implement a modern public health response. Masks help slow the spread, but a well-funded and coordinated testing strategy is the foundation of that modern response that we know is far more effective even than mask-wearing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lindsay Wiley is the director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University's College of Law in Washington, D.C.

Thank you very much.

WILEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.