What if I can’t wear a face mask because of a medical condition, impairment or disability?

The Chief Health Officer has recently issued a public health direction (CHO direction) making it mandatory to carry and wear a face mask in many public places in Greater Brisbane.

The direction says that a face mask should cover your mouth and nose and must be worn:

  • on public transport or while using public transport infrastructure (bus stations, train stations, ferry terminals etc);
  • in a commercial passenger vehicle (taxis, rideshares or privately chartered transport) or while waiting in designated pickup spaces for a commercial passenger vehicle (e.g. taxi rank);
  • any public indoor spaces (at the shops, airports, medical centres, gyms etc);
  • while entering or exiting a major sports stadium;
  • if you have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19; or
  • if you are required to do so by any other public health directions.

At present, the direction will remain in force until January 22 (although it may be extended beyond that date by another CHO direction).

What if I can’t wear a face mask for medical reasons?

There is an exemption to the face mask requirement for people who have a physical or mental health illness, medical condition or disability which makes wearing a face mask “unsuitable”.

For example, wearing a face mask may be unsuitable for: persons who have obstructed breathing, a serious skin condition on their face, an intellectual disability, a mental health illness, or who have experienced trauma.

There is also an exemption for people undergoing medical care or treatment which require that no face mask be worn.

In all cases, the exemption only applies for as long as the person has the medical condition or is receiving the medical treatment.  If the condition resolves then you will need to wear a face mask.

I am Deaf or have a hearing impairment and need to be able to see other people’s mouths to communicate properly

Wearing face masks can limit or impact language access for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

The CHO direction also makes exemptions for people communicating with someone who is Deaf or hearing impaired.  The exemption allows a person to remove their face mask if visibility of the mouth is essential for communication with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing.

However the mask may only be removed for this purpose and must be worn again as soon as possible after the communication ends.

Expression Australia has published an online communications toolkit which may be of assistance to people who are Deaf or hearing impaired.  You can also download print ready badges/wallet cards or “smartphone badges” to explain your communication needs to others.

I have a valid exemption but have had difficulty accessing public places without a mask

You should still be able to access public places without a face mask if you have a lawful, valid exemption and are not experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.

Even so, it may be difficult to explain why you are not wearing a face mask when attempting to enter indoor venues such as shops and medical centres, or while using public transport or passenger services.  You may feel worried that other people will judge you for not wearing a mask.

The following steps could help minimise any problems:

  • Ensure you follow all other preventative measures (comply with social distancing requirements, follow any check-in process, use hand sanitiser etc);
  • Talk to your doctor and obtain a medical certificate stating that you are unable to wear a mask for medical reasons. You may also want to ask your doctor about alternative face coverings that may be available (e.g. see-through clear masks may be easier for communicating with Deaf or hearing impaired people);
  • If you are going to an indoor venue such as a shop, medical centre or pharmacy, you could call ahead and advise them of your exemption, offer to send a medical certificate as proof and let them know when you are planning to attend. Perhaps you could ask if you can come at a less busy time (for example your local supermarket may have designated “Quiet Hour” times);
  • If you have been refused access, ask if other options are available such as “click and collect”, home delivery, phone orders or other contactless pick-up arrangements. You could explain that you have a medical condition/impairment/disability and if they refuse to provide you with goods/services their conduct may be discriminatory;
  • If you are concerned about how people will react to you not wearing a mask, you could consider printing a badge/wallet card or downloading a “smartphone badge” to show others.

Remember, many organisations are also trying to balance the new CHO directions with their workplace health and safety obligations, while making adjustments for people with valid exemptions.  CHO directions can change quickly and it’s understandable that there will be some confusion about how these rules operate in practice.  This can be a particularly stressful time for frontline workers and it will help to be as patient and cooperative as possible.

If, after following these steps, you are still refused entry (or no reasonable adjustments can be made to help you access goods/services) you may have grounds to bring a discrimination complaint.  For more information see the Queensland Law Handbook chapter Direct or Indirect Discrimination against People with Disabilities – Queensland Law Handbook Online You can bring a discrimination complaint with either the Queensland Human Rights Commission (within 12 months of the discrimination) or the Australian Human Rights Commission (within 6 months).  Choosing which option can be complicated and you should seek legal advice before making a formal complaint.

What happens if I don’t wear a mask?

If you don’t have a valid exemption and fail to wear a mask when required, you will be breaching the CHO direction.  You could be questioned by police and if you don’t have a reasonable excuse the maximum penalties include a fine up to $13,345 or 6 months imprisonment.

There have been media reports of people faking disabilities or medical conditions to try and get out of wearing a mask.  It is important to understand that in addition being in breach of the CHO directive, lying or misleading the police or public health officials may be a further offence that could attract additional penalties.

For more information please see our fact sheet “Policing in Queensland during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Where can I find the latest CHO direction?

You can access a copy of this CHO Direction on the Queensland Health website.

The Queensland Government also publishes general information and answers to FAQs here.

If you are confused or have any queries about COVID-19 in Queensland, you should telephone 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) which is a 24/7 phone line operated by Queensland Health.

Getting legal advice

This blog post is produced by Caxton Legal Centre and is intended to give general information about the law in Queensland as at 15 January 2021.  The content of this blog does not constitute legal advice.

Referrals to a community legal centre for free legal advice are available through Community Legal Centres Queensland:
Telephone: (07) 3392 0092
Website: https://communitylegalqld.org.au/find-legal-help

Private lawyer referrals are available through the Queensland Law Society:
Telephone: 1300 367 757
Website: https://www.qls.com.au/For_the_community/Find_a_solicitor