Disabled campaigners have called on a multinational retailer to urgently withdraw a “totally unacceptable” policy that bans disabled people who cannot wear face coverings from its stores.
The American retail giant is now facing legal action from disabled people after introducing a new policy just two days before Christmas that only allows customers into the store if they are wearing a face mask or face shield.
This replaces a previous policy that provided an exemption to its face covering policy if the customer could not wear one because of a health condition, in line with government regulations.
But Louie Silveira, Costco’s vice president and country manager for the UK and Iceland, said in an announcement on the company’s website on 23 December: “This is no longer the case.
“If a member/guest has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, they must instead wear a face shield.”
He added: “Whilst this updated policy may seem inconvenient for some, we believe that the added safety is worth any inconvenience.”
But disabled campaigners and lawyers say this new policy is unlawful.
In November, Disability News Service reported how tech giant Apple was facing multiple legal cases being taken by disabled people who had been ejected from its shops for failing to wear a face mask, despite government guidance stating that they were exempt from the rules.
Coronavirus guidance from the UK government – applying in England – the Scottish government and the Welsh government makes it clear that people who cannot wear face coverings for impairment-related reasons do not need to do so when visiting shops and other service-providers, and do not need to provide evidence of their exemption.
But despite these rules, retailers and service-providers like Costco are still preventing disabled customers from entering their premises if they cannot wear a face covering.
One of those affected and set to take legal action against Costco through discrimination lawyers Fry Law is Marco Naayem (pictured), who lives in south-west London, and has invisible physical impairments, as well as serious allergies and asthma that mean he cannot wear a face covering.
He was refused entry to his local Costco branch in Croydon last summer, even though the company’s policy in place at the time allowed medical exemptions.
He was later forced to queue to enter the store for more than 45 minutes – another apparent breach of the Equality Act – despite showing staff at the entrance a photograph of his blue parking badge.
He said the new policy, which he found out about through an email just before Christmas, was “outrageous”.
He said: “It’s going to cause me all sorts of problems. I don’t understand how they have been allowed to get away with it.
“They have tried to take the law into their own hands. It’s just ridiculous.”
He will now be forced to make more regular trips to supermarkets to buy items he would normally buy in bulk from Costco.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “Costco’s policy, which bars disabled people unable to wear face coverings/shields from their premises, is totally unacceptable.
“It goes against government regulations, which recognise that for some disabled people, face coverings will be impossible to wear due to breathing difficulties, learning disabilities or mental health conditions.
“Not making reasonable adjustments for disabled people unable to wear face coverings [or] shields is also unlawful under the Equality Act.
“We would ask Costco to have regard to the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance for retailers and to withdraw this discriminatory policy as a matter of urgency.”
Stuart White, a consultant with Fry Law, which has a number of clients wishing to take legal action against Costco over the change in policy, said Costco had shown “a blatant disregard for the government guidelines on face coverings, by excluding customers who are exempt”.
He said the company was “misleading customers” by advising them that the exemptions no longer applied and was “in clear breach of the Equality Act 2010”.
Costco had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).
Fry Law has a free template letter that can be downloaded from its website for anyone who needs to lodge a facemask complaint.
It has also launched a survey that aims to find out how widespread the problem is.
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