Our library has taken the next step in re-opening and is welcoming the public back into our building. We have a Safety Plan, and we have posted signage in key areas to help the public follow our safety practices, including staying at least six feet apart whenever possible, and every visitor using hand sanitizer upon entry and (if over the age of two) wearing face coverings at all times.
A patron who cannot wear a mask raised the possibility of our policy being a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). They patron is concerned that this policy discriminates against those who cannot “medically tolerate” a mask.
Are we in the wrong to require masks?
It is not wrong to require patrons to wear masks. As of this writing (July 7, 2020), qualified experts agree that masks remain one of the most effective ways to stop the transmission of COVID-19. In an environment storing circulating materials and shared space, this is a critical step for reducing the risk to library employees, and the public.
That said, even the most well-intentioned efforts can step on the rights of others, including rights under the ADA. How does a library promote safety, while abiding by the ADA?
The key is to implement and enforce the mask-wearing requirement in a way that doesn’t overstep or unnecessarily limit the access of those living with a disability.
Here is a step-by-step process to help a library assess, draft and enforce a mask-wearing requirement so it is harmonized with the protections of the ADA.
NOTE: For this exercise you will need: a copy of your Safety Plan, the person or team who writes/updates the Safety Plan, a copy of your library’s floorplan, and the documents linked in the steps below.
Estimated time of activity: 1.5 hours.
Isolate the language in your Safety Plan requiring patrons to wearing masks. This is your “Patron Mask Enforcement Language” (“PMEL”).
Look at your PMEL.
Is it a Uniform Use requirement, such as: “All patrons must wear masks upon entry, and the mask must remain in place at all times during your visit, in all areas.”
Is it a Circumstantial Use requirement, such as: “All patrons must wear masks upon entry, and the mask must remain in place at all times during your visit, except when seated in our Wipe Down Reading Area, where seating is at least 7 feet apart, and patrons must spray down the surfaces in their zone after use (limit 20 minutes).”
Look at the floor plan. Is there ANY place in the library where current CDC-advised safety practices can be used to create a place for “Circumstantial Use” of masks? In other words, is there any place where, after considering all the risks to mitigate through measures other than a mask, can you offer an official mask-free zone to patrons?
For many small libraries, the answer will be a hard “NO.” The space will be just too small. And for many libraries with more space, the answer will again be a hard “NO,” based on budget; they may have the space, but the extra resources spent to monitor and sanitize the area are just too costly.
When the Safety Plan team reaches a conclusion, document the analysis, and if any zone can be so converted, mark it on the floor plan (which you will attached to the Safety Plan). For example: The Safety Plan Team met on DATE to review the floor plan and see if any area could be converted into a mask-free zone for patrons. Based on space, available furniture, costs, and proximity to circulating materials, the team concluded [whatever you concluded].
If your library does develop a mask-free zone for patrons, the rules and cleaning protocols for the area must be robustly detailed in your Safety Plan. The supplies for patrons to do their own spray-down upon arising from the designated seating must be routinely re-stocked. The rules must be well-posted and strictly enforced.
Now, back to the ADA. Does your Safety Plan have a section on how a patron can request accommodations while the library is operating under the Plan? If the answer is “no”, this is a good thing to consider adding.
I have written previously about libraries’ shifting obligations under the ADA. All of that previous material applies to this situation, but of course, now we have the extra layer of COVID-19.
Always, with ADA, the goal of the library should be to find a way to ensure access. That said, some access will not be as a patron envisions, and some requested accommodations are just not implementable. Because of this, as I wrote at the top of this answer: “The key is to implement and enforce the mask-wearing requirement in a way that doesn’t overstep or unnecessarily limit the access of those living with a disability.” When modifying operations to reduce transmission of COVID-19, that means posting information about accommodations and access right along with the other signage you’re developing and posting as part of the Safety Plan.
So with all that as background, “Step 5” is answering this question:
“Does our Safety Plan address access and accommodations as required by the ADA?” If the answer is “no,” continue to Step 6.
If you have decided you must add some ADA-related language to your Safety Plan, you can do so by answering the following questions:
a. How does a person contact the library to request reasonable accommodations during a time of adjusted operations?
b. What reasonable accommodations can your library be ready to offer to the following common safety measure-related issues:
Some of the requested accommodations for the above issues will be simple. Can’t use hand sanitizer? We’ll provide water, a disposable towel, and soap. Can’t wear a mask? We don’t have a mask-free zone, but we’ll be happy to assist you over the phone and you can pick your books up curbside. Need extra help at the computer? We’ll figure it out, but our employees have been instructed to stay at least six feet apart unless behind a plexi window, and that is non-negotiable.
Some accommodations are harder. You’re allergic to the spray-down solution we bought in bulk? Sorry, we can’t buy a different gross of spray until next month; please let us know what ingredient bothers you and we’ll see if our procurement folks can find something different. Until then, we’ll be happy to assist you over the phone and you can pick your books up curbside. You have pre-existing conditions that mean you can’t go in a public area, even if there is a Safety Plan being enforced? We are so sorry to hear that. We miss you. We wish this whole thing was over. We are here for you by phone, e-mail, or the internet, and can work with a designated person who will pick up your books.
The key is to ensure that people know how to direct the requests, and that the library is ready to assess them promptly.
A good way to organize this is to create a section of the Safety Plan providing for signage stating: “For patrons needing disability accommodations while the library is operating under conditions to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, please call NAME at NUMBER, or write to EMAIL or ADDRESS. You will also find this information in our Safety Plan. The library is committed to safe access for all.”
Step 7: Feeling Confident
Okay, you have followed the six steps for assessing your Safety Plan and building out its provisions with regard to ADA. Do you feel confident in your approach? For teams that want a little extra “oomph” in their handling of COVID-19-related accommodations requests, here is some law:
First, here is the language from New York’s Executive Order 202.34, regarding the ability of businesses to require and enforce the use of masks:
Business operators and building owners, and those authorized on their behalf shall have the discretion to ensure compliance with the directive in Executive Order 202.17 (requiring any individual over age two, and able to medically tolerate a face-covering, be required to cover their nose and mouth with a mask or cloth face-covering when in a public place), including the discretion to deny admittance to individuals who fail to comply with the directive in Executive Order 202.17 or to require or compel their removal if they fail to adhere to such directive, and such owner or operator shall not be subject to a claim of violation of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, or frustration of purpose, solely due to their enforcement of such directive. Nothing in this directive shall prohibit or limit the right of State and local enforcement authorities from imposing fines or other penalties for any violation of the directive in Executive Order 202.17. This directive shall be applied in a manner consistent with the American with Disabilities Act or any provision of either New York State or New York City Human Rights Law, or any other provision of law.
As reviewed in Step 6, “consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” does not mean that those who cannot medically wear a mask are automatically allowed maskless entry as an ADA accommodation. Rather, a place must see if the risk posed to the public by the maskless individual can be mitigated by a “reasonable” accommodation. For libraries that can have a mask-free zone, they can be. For a tiny library where any breath will land on circulating materials, it likely cannot.
The key to doing this right is thoughtful assessment and documentation: replying to ADA requests should not be a gut-check exercise. It should be considered, thoughtful, and documented as shown in steps 3 through 6. Whenever possible, a library assessing accommodations request should consult a lawyer.
Second, here is a pep talk from the US Department of Justice, the body who enforces ADA:
The Department of Justice Warns of Inaccurate Flyers and Postings Regarding the Use of Face Masks and the Americans with Disabilities Act
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband reiterated today that cards and other documents bearing the Department of Justice seal and claiming that individuals are exempt from face mask requirements are fraudulent.
Inaccurate flyers or other postings have been circulating on the web and via social media channels regarding the use of face masks and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these notices included use of the Department of Justice seal and ADA phone number.
As the Department has stated in a previous alert, the Department did not issue and does not endorse them in any way. The public should not rely on the information contained in these postings.
The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.
The public can visit ADA.gov or call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) and 800-514-0383 (TTY) for more information.
So, while ADA, or the disability protections of the New York Human Rights law, most certainly could apply to a person denied access to a covered institution, as can be seen, it’s just not that simple. If your library builds out the ADA provisions of its safety plan, listens to ADA-related requests carefully, and assesses them promptly, you can feel confident that you are doing your best to provide ADA access. And if you have the slightest uncertainty about any of those steps, you should contact a lawyer.
However, having seen how these things go, here is a final thought: people who are making ADA requests can feel vulnerable. It can be scary to admit a disability; it is an act of trust to request accommodations. On the flip side, many people with disabilities have learned their rights, and fight for them as warriors. Many parents of children with disabilities have learned to be ardent advocates.
All of this can create tension (at any already tense time). So any ADA request, no matter what the tone or context, should be met with a simple “I hear this request. We will work on this as quickly as possible. This is important to us.” Then get the answer, and document it, taking care to not let too much time pass.
Thank you for an important question.
 I really tried to come up with a sassy acronym for this. The best I could do, even after 2 cups of coffee, was “MAP” for “Masking All Patrons.” That sounds AWFUL so “PMEL” it is.
 I won’t lie. I didn’t try to come up with a better phrase than “Wipe Down Reading Area.” But I am sure someone out there will.
 Bearing in mind that different libraries will have different requirements.
 NOTE: While this Executive Order does not mention the other requirements a business can make a condition of entry, since a library can make adherence to its Safety Plan a condition of the standing Patron Code of Conduct, if a library so chooses, it has more than just the Order to address concerns (this also assures all appropriate due process). See https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/138 for a discussion of how to enfold your Safety Plan into your Code of Conduct.