Bill would allow businesses to require masks; aims at phony 'exempt' scams

Originally published in Newsday on June 29, 2020.

ALBANY — A new bill would empower businesses to require customers to wear face masks to ward off the spread of the COVID-19 virus and to crack down on phony “face mask exempt cards” that are being sold online.

“Having a law on the books adds certainty and also sends a clear message that the entire state is behind the importance of mask-wearing and its central role in getting our economy back on track,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach).

The law would bolster an existing executive order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and guidance from by the federal Centers for Disease Control to use masks in groups or when social distancing is difficult to maintain.

“It is more important now than ever for people to wear masks,” said Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), a majority member of the Assembly Health Committee who is cosponsoring the bill. “If it were a law, I think people might take it more seriously.”

“Scammers have been trying to undermine the executive order and we will not stand for it,” said Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor.

The cards claim, “I am exempt from any ordinance requiring face mask usage in public. 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 then includes an official logo for the U.S. Department of Justice and a “ADA violation reporting number” that directs the caller to general information about the disabilities act in a Justice Department recording.

“Denying access business/organization will also be reported to  the FTBA for further actions.” The FTBA website URL reaches an inactive site.

The Department of Justice has issued a consumer warning.

“Do not be fooled by the chicanery and misappropriation of the DOJ eagle,” said North Carolina U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin. “These cards do not carry the force of law. The ‘Freedom to Breathe Agency,’ or ‘FTBA,’ is not a government agency.”

Kaminsky’s bill wouldn’t apply to children 2 years old or younger and is  only for those medically able to wear a mask. Stores, businesses and organizations must display a sign that requires wearing a mask before denying entry or asking a person without a mask to leave.

“Any firm, business, corporation, association, entity or not-for-profit corporation may prohibit the entrance of persons to their facility, or ask a person to leave the premises of their facility if such person refuses to cover their mouth and nose with a mask or face covering,” the bill states.

"This bill is a wonderful next step and will benefit every store owner in the community," said Maria Heller, assistant treasurer of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce.