COVID-19 pandemic

Businesses Allowing Customers without Masks Due to Mistake

Readers have told Motif about a number of restaurants and other businesses allowing customers without masks during the COVID-19 pandemic because the operators mistakenly believe state government requires them to do so. We confirmed with the RI Department of Health (DoH) that such businesses are misreading the rules essentially backward: “A business owner is not required to deny service to an unmasked customer. However, the business owner has the option to deny service to an unmasked customer,” said Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for DoH, in response to an inquiry from Motif.

Photo of a door sign provided by a Motif reader from a restaurant, incorrectly claiming they are not allowed to refuse service to customers without masks.

Put more simply, businesses have the same freedom to refuse service to customers without masks as they do to customers without shirts or shoes. We are choosing not to identify any particular businesses reported to us by readers because this incorrect interpretation of the regulations seems to be widespread, likely reinforced by business operators sharing wrong information among themselves. It is especially disturbing that, as one posted sign states, “A large majority of our guests have chosen not to wear masks.”

It’s unclear how this misinterpretation started. Although the actual regulation 216-RICR-50-15-7.4.3 is written in legalese, it is posted on the web and seems clear enough: “Each covered entity [business] shall instruct any person entering an establishment to wear cloth face coverings except when social distancing from others in the establishment is easily, continuously, and measurably maintained or §7.3(D)(2) of this Part applies. Without limitation of the foregoing, individuals must wear a cloth face covering when at an entrance, exit and common areas of any establishment including, but not limited to: check-in, registration, reception, waiting areas, hallways, corridors, bathrooms, elevators, and stairways.” (The exceptions listed in §7.3(D)(2) include very young children, safety issues such as proximity to open flames, and while actually eating.) The further sub-section (a) of this rule requires that businesses enforce mask wearing by employees, but leaves it to the business whether to require mask wearing by customers: “If any employee refuses to wear a cloth face covering when required by these regulations and such individual is not otherwise exempt from the requirements pursuant to § 7.3(D)(2) of this Part, a covered entity shall deny access to the establishment. Nothing in this Part shall require a store or other business to refuse entry to a customer not wearing a face covering.”

But a claim by businesses that the state prevents them from refusing service to customers because they are not wearing masks is flatly wrong.