Maskless man denied access to Ottawa Fabricland store despite medical exemption

The Fabricland sign out front of the Merivale Road location where a man says he was unable to enter without a mask despite having a medical exemption. Google Street View

An Ottawa man says he was barred from entering a local Fabricland store this past weekend because he wasn’t wearing a mask, despite disclosing a medical condition that prevented him from doing so.

In spite of an Ottawa Public Health (OPH) directive listing such conditions as an exemption from the mask-wearing requirement, the store says its own policy barring anyone from entering without a mask supersedes the public health unit’s order.

The man tells Global News the incident made him feel embarrassed and discriminated against, but experts and Ontario’s own human rights commission believe the store was within its rights.

And as the province moves towards Stage 3 of reopening amid the novel coronavirus pandemic later this week, the clash might be emblematic of future confusion and confrontations as businesses attempt to strike a balance between public safety and individual rights.

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Robin Lessard tells Global News he and his wife went to the Fabricland store on Merivale Road in Ottawa this past Saturday afternoon.

Aside from a quick trip to the grocery store, Lessard says the trip was his first time out of the house in months since stay-home orders were first issued in the coronavirus pandemic.

When they got there, Lessard says there were roughly 30 people waiting in line to go into the store.

He wasn’t wearing a mask, he says, because he has a severe respiratory disease and can’t afford to block his airways.

“I can’t walk 10 feet, 20 feet without stopping and catching my breath,” he says.

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When he arrived at the entrance to the store, an employee asked him why he wasn’t wearing a mask.

The recent OPH order mandating face coverings in enclosed public spaces notes that individuals with medical exemptions preventing the use of masks are not required to disclose their condition to business operators.

Lessard says he told the Fabricland employee about his condition nonetheless, so as to avoid further confrontation.

“I would prefer to tell people so they feel more comfortable,” he says.

The employee left to go get a manager, who asked him the same question, Lessard says.

He was then told Fabricland’s policy is not to allow anyone in the store without a mask, despite any medical exemption. The policy goes beyond requirements set out by OPH.

The manager told him he wouldn’t be allowed in.

Lessard says he was getting angry but didn’t “lose his cool.” He pointed out an OPH stock sign that he says hung at the store’s entrance, which mentioned in fine print the exemption the public health unit had set out for those with medical conditions.

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He says he was still barred from entering.

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At this point, his wife pulled him away to leave, and Lessard says he felt humiliated.

“It’s just completely unfair to me,” he says. “And what an embarrassment in front of everybody, too.”

Lessard tells Global News he felt the store discriminated against him because of his underlying medical condition.

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The manager of the Merivale Fabricland store would not talk about the incident during a call with Global News, deferring to the company’s head office for comment.

A senior manager at Fabricland’s head office confirmed to Global News in a call that the store’s policy, crafted before any of the recent public health directives and bylaws mandating mask use, does not allow anyone in the store without a mask, medical exemption or no.

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The sole exemption to Fabricland’s mask rule is children under the age of two.

The spokesperson confirmed Fabricland was aware of the incident from this past weekend and received a formal complaint from Lessard, which he says was addressed.

In a response to his complaint, Lessard was told by a Fabricland customer service rep that the company understands he was “inconvenienced” by the incident, but reiterated the company’s stance on customer mask use.

Fabricland’s mask policy is listed on its website, and was last updated on July 10, the day before the incident.

The post notes that masks are required to enter the store, and asks that anyone unable to wear a face covering use the curbside pickup option.

Lessard says he wasn’t told about curbside or online shopping options during the altercation.

Asked about the presence of an OPH sign, the company’s spokersperson says he wasn’t aware of any signage beyond Fabricland’s internal messaging being posted at the Merivale store.

He later told Global News that upon further investigation, an OPH sign was placed in the corridor of the mall in an area not operated by Fabricland.

After speaking to the shopping centre’s landlord, the company was told the mall is required to post OPH signs on the exterior doors of the complex, though Fabricland is welcome to post its own signs at its entranceway, which the the spokesperson says the company does.

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He added Fabricland will stress to staff and management not to ask questions about why patrons are not wearing masks and instead explain curbside and online options should anyone unable to wear a mask.

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Fabricland’s spokesperson said the company reviews its policies surrounding the coronavirus pandemic on an almost-daily basis as provincial and regional rules evolve, but that the safety of customers and employees is always paramount.

In crafting the company’s mask policy, he says Fabricland consulted the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).

In a Q&A posted on its website, the OHRC says mandatory mask rules are generally not considered human rights issues, and that retailers would be OK to institute their own policies as long as appropriate accommodations are made for customers with disabilities.

In this case, curbside pickup appears to satisfy discrimination concerns.

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“For example, offering curbside pickup would generally allow a person to receive a retail service even if, because of their disability, they are unable to wear the required mask to enter a store,” the OHRC website reads.

Richard Powers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, agrees with that reading.

Powers tells Global News that he understands the frustration people such as Lessard feel in these circumstances and that their inclination might be to challenge companies on their policies.

But in cases like this, he says, the company would likely have a strong defence.

“I know people will challenge these things on human rights grounds, but are they trying to make a reasonable accommodation? The answer, in my view, is yes,” he says.

“By having curbside (pickup), by having online (shopping), they’re offering them other options. They’re not discriminating against them based on a disability.”

Fabricland’s spokesperson acknowledges the policy on masks can be frustrating for some customers, and says the company has received its fair share of feedback since it reopened during the pandemic.

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“We do get a lot of complaints about this. We also get a lot of positive responses,” he says.

Much of the tension, he says, might stem from confusion between public health directives, which offer a baseline of expectation, and private company policies, which could go beyond.

“If I didn’t know any better, I would be confused by that as well,” he says, noting most customers seem comfortable with the rule.

Lessard tells Global News he understands the responses from Fabricland and experts, though it doesn’t make his experience any less upsetting.

“It is what it is,” he says.

Lessard says he has followed the changes in regulations during the pandemic very carefully, but he still had a feeling the general confusion would result in conflict.

“I knew this was going to happen,” he says, adding that he hopes his experience helps others avoid similar situations.

Premier Doug Ford announced on Monday that Ottawa and most other regions of Ontario are primed to enter Stage 3 of reopening this coming Friday, a move that will see dine-in restaurants, movie theatres and more welcome back the public.

Powers says companies would be wise to craft their policies in anticipation of these disputes, though in some cases, conflicts with customers might be unavoidable.

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“We are going to start facing more of these situations as we start opening up. Retailers have to be ready for it.”

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