By CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Even though some states have lifted mask mandates, police and law enforcement experts say you can still face charges if you refuse to wear a mask at a store, restaurant or business that requires one.
Governors in Texas and Mississippi have lifted state executive orders mandating face coverings amid the pandemic, but a slew of businesses have already said they will still require customers to wear masks.
Businesses have the right and authority to demand that customers wear masks on their property, according to law enforcement expert Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent and current ABC News contributor. Moreover, failing to abide by a businesses’ mask requirement could result in criminal trespass charges.
Garrett said firms have to be transparent with customers by clearly posting signs on a door. If a customer doesn’t wear a mask but still enters the business after seeing the signage, “by most people’s definition I think that would probably show intent — you read a sign and you don’t obey the sign,” he said.
“In most states, criminal trespass is either a misdemeanor or even an infraction. An infraction means that you get fined at the very most. Misdemeanors could potentially carry up to six months in prison,” Garrett explained. “My guess is that nobody’s probably going to go to prison just for simple criminal trespass of this nature.”
Charges can also escalate for those who may take further action if they are denied service for wearing a mask, Garrett said, an issue many businesses across the nation have already grappled with as employees ask defiant customers to don masks.
“Typically people that would be contrary enough not to wear a mask may be more inclined to make an issue of not wearing a mask,” Garrett said. “That then could turn into assault. If you start shoving the manager, hitting the manager, pulling a gun — then there’s all sorts of serious felonies that could result beyond the simple charge of criminal trespass.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo similarly emphasized the rights of business owners in a tweet last week shortly after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the lifting of the mandate.
“As a reminder to our fellow Texans, private businesses enjoy property rights and may require folks to wear a mask,” Acevedo wrote. “Please respect their property rights. If you decline to wear a mask and are asked to leave and refuse, you may be committing the offense of criminal trespass.”
The Austin Police Department told ABC News Wednesday that it will continue to focus on education, awareness and voluntary compliance of mask mandates, but may begin the criminal trespass notice process if a business or property owner has requested a patron to leave and they do not comply.
Abbott also made clear at a news conference last week that “if businesses want to limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols, they have the right to do so.”
Ultimately, businesses can enforce mask mandates from a legal standpoint, Garrett said.
“How doable is it from a practical standpoint, I think, is an open question,” he added.
If a significant number of people refuse to abide by private mask requirements, Garrett said it could easily become “an enforcement nightmare” and strain resources of already understaffed local police departments.
“It also can be potentially unfair for your baseline workers, your stock people, your salespeople, the folks that have more direct minute-by-minute contact with the public,” he noted.
Health officials have implored Americans to wear a mask during the pandemic for months now, citing studies that indicate mask wearing can significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The former CDC director even told lawmakers last September that he “might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”
President Joe Biden blasted Texas’ move to drop its mask mandate as “Neanderthal thinking,” saying mask-wearing still matters and “it’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science.”
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