In the midst of the COVID-19 public health emergency, face masks are the new normal. This especially remains true in Illinois with Governor Pritzker’s face mask mandate in place and the State’s authority to fine businesses who fail to require patrons to wear facial coverings. Laminated “face mask exempt” cards have been emerging in response to this mandate, allegedly providing the authority for the cardholder to enter businesses mask-free. Though the ADA violation reporting number cited on the cards is real, the “face mask exempt” cards are not.
Common “face mask exempt” cards are the size of a business card, feature a red, white, and blue eagle logo, and state that the cardholder is exempt from ordinances requiring them to wear masks in public. The cards cite the Americans with Disabilities Agency (ADA), the Freedom to Breathe Agency, and occasionally feature the Department of Justice (DOJ) logo. The idea behind the card is that the unmasked cardholder can show it to a business owner or manager and employers to request entry into a business that otherwise requires a face mask.
Due to the rising popularity of these fraudulent cards, the DOJ has issued two notices (found here and here) disavowing the cards and any government agency involvement in their creation. Quite contrarily from what the cards claim, the ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements such as wearing a mask.
It is important that employers and business owners recognize these fraudulent cards in order to properly enforce mask mandates and avoid unnecessary fines. While some individuals may have a disability that prevents them from wearing a typically accepted face covering, the ADA allows an employer to ask for medical documentation and requires that the individual and employer engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists.