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Can a store make me wear a mask to shop? Your COVID-19 questions answered

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We’re breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic. Send us your questions via email at and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and on CBC News Network. So far we’ve received more than 43,000 emails from all corners of the country.

Can a store force me to wear a mask in order to shop there?

Some stores across the country have made it mandatory for shoppers to wear a mask, which has some of our readers, like Vel B., wondering if those policies can actually be enforced. 

The short answer is yes, retailers can enforce the rule. But it can get more complicated in certain situations. 

In the same way a store can tell you “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” they can insist “No mask, no service,” according to Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and a former Ontario attorney general.

The argument can be made on the basis of health and safety regulations in their store.

“There’s no law backing the store up, but there’s no stopping the store either,” Bryant said.

Richard Powers, business professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said that because they are private businesses, they can set the terms for their clients any way they choose.

What if you can’t wear a mask — or don’t want to?

“If someone adamantly refuses to put on a mask, the store owner can refuse to let them into the store,” Powers said.  

But there are caveats. And because there’s currently no law or emergency order requiring people to wear masks, it gets a bit tricky.

Some reasons customers might refuse to wear a mask: “[If] someone had a face covering for religious reasons and didn’t want to also put a mask on, or if the person is suspecting they’re being targeted because they are a racialized minority, or if the person seems to be being targeted because they appear to be impoverished or mentally ill,” Bryant said. 

WATCH | Are you making these face mask mistakes?

A face mask is meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. But if it slips below your nose, hovers around your chin, or you touch the outside with your hands, medical experts say that might be riskier than not wearing one at all. 3:56

Bryant warned that being denied entry in a place with no other option — like a rural area with just one grocery store — could be violating human rights rules. 

“Refusing service to somebody in an area where there isn’t an alternative is possibly unlawful,” he said. 

Mask policies could also inadvertently discriminate against people who cannot afford masks, Bryant said.

At Longo’s grocery stores, CEO Anthony Longo said, accommodations will be made for customers who can’t wear a mask for health or other reasons. 

So far, Bryant said, the CCLA hasn’t received complaints from people about being denied entry to a store based on mask-wearing.

What can I do as a business owner if people don’t want to follow physical distancing rules?

Many readers are telling us they notice that not everyone is keeping their distance while shopping.

Small business owner Hugh L. wrote in asking how he can manage customers who don’t want to follow the rules.

But just as shoppers have rights, so do business owners. 

Powers said it’s up to individual business owners to set the rules for their stores, as long as they abide by the laws of the jurisdiction. 

“If a person fails to adhere to those rules, the business is within their rights to refuse to serve them,” he said. “You don’t kick them out, you act reasonably in the situation — but if someone is acting unreasonably, they should refuse to serve them.”  

Health Canada’s advice for business owners includes posting clear signage that communicates the store’s health policies, and where to place them. The federal agency also suggests assigning a dedicated employee each shift to relay this messaging to customers at the entrance. 

Thursday we answered questions about disinfecting masks and whether or not you need to hold your breath when passing by other people.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at

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