Bunnings ‘Karen’ Saga: Is It Legal to Refuse Wearing a Face Mask?

Bunnings ‘Karen’ Saga: Is It Legal to Refuse Wearing a Face Mask?

Face masks are now mandatory in public for certain areas of Victoria amid a major outbreak in the region. While the science shows it’s an effective way of limiting the risk of coronavirus transmission, there are some in the community that refuse to wear them, citing ambiguous defenses such as right of freedom and human rights. But outside of those regions, can a store refuse entry if you’re not wearing a face mask? Here’s what the law says.

Social media was set alight after a video of a woman refusing to wear a mask in a Bunnings’ store went viral. When staff directed the woman to wear a mask, she refused, stating it was discrimination against her as a woman and a breach of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The woman, referred to as a ‘Karen’, was later arrested and remained combative against police who attempted to explain to her how the law worked.

It’s an unfortunate sight to see given Melbourne is dealing with the largest outbreak in Australia since the pandemic first arrived in the country back in January. Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident, with a number of other videos popping up with similar Karens espousing the same arguments against public mask wearing.

Given the nature of these incidents, it helps to understand how the law works and why wearing a face mask is needed right now. So, let’s dig in.

What does the law say about mandatory face mask wearing?

From 11:59pm Wednesday 22 July 2020, it became mandatory to wear a face covering when in public for those in metropolitan Melbourne or Mitchell Shire, unless you had a good reason not to.

You are permitted to not wear a face mask if you have a medical condition that impairs your ability to wear one, you’re doing “strenuous” exercise or if it affects how you do your job.

Aside from said reasons, being in public spaces means you are required to wear one and not doing so could incur a $200 on-the-spot fine from police officers.

Elsewhere in Victoria, it’s strongly recommended face masks are worn but unlike the rule in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, it is not enforced. Those outside of the area won’t be fined if they’re found not wearing a mask in public.

Mandatory face mask wearing is not enforced anywhere else in Australia but NSW health authorities have recommended people consider wearing them when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Can a store force me to wear a mask?

Inside the face-masking zone, where the above video was allegedly captured, a store can refuse entry if you’re not wearing a mask and don’t have a lawful excuse either.

The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services site says “for their own and other customer’s safety, a business owner or worker can ask you not to enter until you wear a face covering such as a mask.”

Like the Karen in the video, if someone refuses to put on a mask and proceeds to enter the store despite a refusal, the police can be called in to enforce the situation.

But this can be extended to stores outside of the highlighted zone in Victoria and beyond the pandemic’s end. Under Australian law, private businesses can propose strict entry requirements on anyone hoping to enter a store. For example, certain venues require you to dress to a certain standard or you’ll be refused entry.

The same rule could apply to safety requirements upon entry so you might need to use hand sanitiser and wear a mask in order to access the store. Given it’s private land, you would need to comply with their requests — provided they’re reasonable and not discriminatory — or risk not being allowed to enter.

It’d be tough to refuse a request to wear a face mask given we’re in the middle of a public health crisis.

Should you wear a mask?

Legality aside, the question comes down to quite a simple one — if you’re not legally required to wear a face mask, should you wear one anyway?

Masks have been shown to reduce the transmission of the virus, especially in situations where physical distancing can’t be guaranteed such as on public transport. A new study by researchers from UNSW showed even a single-layered mask was better than none at all and that three-layered cloth masks reduced the spread of droplets considerably.

Melbourne’s deteriorating situation should pose as a lesson to us all — wearing a face mask is a small step to further stop the spread of the virus. It’s not an impenetrable shield but it might be the difference between someone unwittingly infecting another person or not.

The other key lesson here is — don’t be a Karen.

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