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Officials explain Seneca County’s approach to mask enforcement, ‘reasonable accommodation’ for those with difficulty breathing

Earlier this week public health officials outlined their renewed efforts to combat social distancing violations, and masking issues at local businesses in Seneca County.

After the initial story was published, the following question appeared repeatedly: What if a person says they can’t wear a face mask due to a medical concern or disability?

We reached out to Seneca County Attorney David Ettman, who sent out the initial announcement that Seneca would be focusing more energy and effort on finding violators if they receive complaints.

For those who cannot wear a face mask, he says the answer is relatively simple: Face shields.

“We have been and will be advising businesses to obtain face shields to offer to customers who claim that they cannot wear a mask,” Ettman said. “They’re relatively easy to sanitize between uses. Or, if the store has an alternative to in-store shopping, such as online or telephone ordering with curbside delivery, or Instacart, those all constitute ‘reasonable accommodation’, which is what is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

He says the ADA doesn’t have an ‘absolute’ standard, but can vary depending on the circumstances of alleged discrimination. “I have been reviewing various sources for ADA issues related to COVID-19. The consistent theme is that reasonable accommodation is the standard and that ‘perceived’ disability is not the same as an actual disability.”

Ettman explained that Seneca County Public Health has been sending out educational outreach workers to review this with businesses in the County. He says there’s been anecdotal evidence suggesting that as businesses – large and small – require face masks – that compliance immediately increases.

“For the past week or so, the bulk of the complaints have been coming in from smaller retail operations, to which several letters of warning were sent. That is probably where education will be emphasized,” Ettman continued. He didn’t identify businesses that had been sent warning letters. However, the earlier press release this week indicated that it could happen in the future — if businesses are repeatedly cited by the County.

As for the rumors, which have been going around about businesses in Seneca and other counties being cited, fined, or doxxed for violating various mandates at the state-level – Ettman added the following:

“There are several ‘rumors’ abounding about ‘spying’ and threats being made by county workers related to this. There have been no ‘secret shoppers’ sent out to search for violations. We have been receiving complaints from both the New York State reporting system and directly from community members — and some businesses complaining about other businesses — and we try to follow up on those to see what is happening.”

Ettman said at the end of the day, the County wants people and businesses to do the best they can.

“We want businesses to ‘do the best that they can’,” he added. “The intent is not to immediately start issuing violations and imposing maximum fines. The Health Department generally does not do that with other violations, and there is reason to go to that extreme on this issue. However, a business that flaunts non-compliance will be looked at significantly harder than one that is trying.”