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Getting Answers: Do HIPAA laws restrict businesses from asking someone why they are not wearing a mask?

wearing a mask
Posted at 3:32 PM, Jul 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-14 16:32:31-04

LAFAYETTE, La. — KATC is getting answers about the latest emergency proclamation from Gov. John Bel Edwards in the COVID-19 public health emergency, which now includes a mask mandate for residents across the state that will be largely enforced by businesses.

Viewers have been asking: Do HIPAA laws restrict any business from asking someone why they are not wearing a mask?

The Health Insurance Portability & Accounting Act, or HIPAA, was passed in 1996 and gave citizens rights over their health information, which includes the right to get a copy of that information, make sure it is correct and know who has seen it.

The governor's order requires face coverings for everyone ages 8 and older, but makes several exceptions including one for anyone who has a medical condition that prevents the wearing of a face covering.

KATC spoke with Stephen Sullivan, a Lafayette attorney who specializes in healthcare law, to get his legal perspective on the issue.

Sullivan says that HIPAA protects health information in the possession of a healthcare provider, which includes any licensed practitioner who provides health care in exchange for payment.

The provider is required by HIPAA to protect health information from disclosure without the consent of the patient.

However, Sullivan says that HIPAA does not include businesses or business owners.

“Accordingly, HIPAA nor any other law prevents a premises owner from asking reasonable questions about a customer’s health condition in order to keep his staff and others safe,” said Sullivan.

“In fact, during the pendency of a pandemic with an Executive Order requiring a mask, the business owners are well within their rights and may have a duty to exclude anyone who is not wearing a mask or otherwise presents a risk of harm to others,” he added.

KATC also asked about viewers’ concerns that the governor’s mask mandate may infringe on their civil liberties.

“There is no civil right to do as you chose, if by doing so you present a risk of harm which infringes on the rights of others,” Sullivan said. “The Civil Rights Act prevents discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin. There is no protection for legitimate discrimination by business owners against customers who for health or any other reason will not mask.”

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