COVID-19 and a Changing Workplace: Face Coverings – What's The Latest Position?
Following on from public health guidance published in May 2020, what's the current position when it comes to face coverings. When is it mandatory and what penalties are in place for non-compliance? We consider the implications for employers and employees who are returning or have returned to work.

 

Since 12 July 2020, face coverings have been mandatory on public transport; and in shops and other specified retail settings since 10 August 2020. 

In addition to the rules on the mandatory use of face coverings, the Department of Health has issued guidance on the safe use of face coverings.  As discussed in our previous briefing (available here), the  guidance recommends that a cloth face covering be worn in situations where it may be difficult to practice social distancing, such as in shops and on public transport. This guidance has been regularly updated with the latest amendments made on 27 August 2020.

Guidance and Advice on the use of face coverings

The guidance provides clear and useful advice regarding the use of cloth face coverings along with a list of dos and don'ts on how to properly wear and handle face coverings.Face Coverings - Do

For example, it is recommended that you do:

  • clean your hands properly before putting on the covering;
  • carry unused coverings in a sealable, clean waterproof bag; and
  • carry a second similar bag to put used coverings in.Face Coverings Do Not

It is also recommended that you do not: 

  • touch a face covering while wearing it; and
  • lower it to speak or eat; if you need to uncover your nose or mouth it is recommended that you remove the face covering and put it in the bag for used coverings.

The guidance also highlights that medical face masks, rather than face coverings, are for healthcare workers and are not intended for use by the general public. It is also recommended that the public do not wear disposable gloves as these can provide a false sense of security and should not replace effective hand hygiene.

Face coverings must be worn by customer facing staff in restaurants and cafes (including pubs that serve food and hotel restaurants) where no other protective measures are in pace, such as partitions. Customers must also wear a face covering when arriving and leaving their table. 

Rules for the use of face coverings

Since 13 July 2020, persons are required to wear a face covering on public transport. 

Since 10 August 2020, members of the public are required to wear a face covering in the following shops and other specified retail outlets: 

face mask required

  • premises, including shops and retail pharmacies, where goods are sold directly to the public
  • shopping centres
  • libraries
  • cinemas and cinema complexes
  • theatres
  • concert halls
  • bingo halls
  • museums
  • nail salons
  • hair salons and barbers
  • tattoo and piercing parlours
  • travel agents and tour operators
  • laundries and dry cleaners
  • bookmakers

 

Members of the public are required to wear a face covering in these settings unless they have a reasonable excuse not to do so, including if they:

face mask exceptions

  • cannot wear a face covering because of a physical or mental illness, or a disability, or because it would cause severe distress
  • need to communicate with someone who has difficulties communicating
  • remove a face covering to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person or to provide emergency assistance to someone
  • remove their face covering in order to (and for the period of time it takes to) take medication
  • remove their face covering to avoid harm or injury or the risk of harm or injury
  • remove their face covering for age and identity verification purposes when purchasing goods or services
  • remove their face covering in respect of the provision of healthcare services to that person 

 

Failure to comply with these rules is a criminal offence, liable to a fine of up to €2,500 or 6 months' imprisonment, or both.  

These rules do not apply to:

  • a person under the age of 13
  • an owner, occupier or other person (a Responsible Person) in charge of, or a worker in, a premises listed above provided that there is a screen separating that person from other people or all reasonable steps are taken to maintain 2 meters' social distance between that person and other people
  • members of An Garda Síochána while performing their duties
  • premises in which the principal activity is the sale of food or beverages for consumption on that premises
  • post offices, credit unions or banks
  • premises in which the principal activity is the provision of medical, dental or other healthcare services (but do apply to retail pharmacies), optician and optometrist outlets and outlets selling hearing aids or hearing aid appliances

A Responsible Person must also take reasonable steps to engage with people entering their premises to inform them of the above requirements and to promote compliance with those requirements. 

These rules are currently in force until at least 5 October 2020.

Face coverings in the workplace 

Whilst a workplace may be considered an enclosed space (and so subject to the guidance recommendation for the wearing of face coverings), the wearing of face coverings has not yet, outside of the rules set out above, been made a mandatory legal requirement.  In determining an approach to the wearing of face coverings in the workplace, employers should consider not only the Department of Health's guidance and the Public Health advice, as mentioned above, but also the National Return to Work Safely Protocol (the Protocol) which was published on 9 May 2020. 

The Protocol is mandatory and applies to all workplaces across Ireland. It sets out steps which must be followed by employers and employees in order to return to work safely and reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.  See here for our briefing on the Protocol.

The Protocol notes that where physical distancing of 2 metres is not possible within a workplace, the employer should put in place alternative protective measures such as clear plastic guards between workers, accessible hand washing facilities, and make face masks available to workers in line with Public Health advice. While the Protocol does not mandate the wearing of face coverings, it does take a similar view to the guidance and focuses on situations where social distancing cannot be ensured, recommending that in those circumstances face coverings should be provided by the employer. However, the wearing of face coverings does not act as a substitute for other protective measures.

Employers should bear in mind that the Protocol is a living document and is subject to change in line with updated Public Health advice and these should be kept under review to ensure that employers continue to comply with the most up-to-date advice and guidance.

Useful Links and Other Resources

The Department of Health guidance (accessible here) includes useful links to advice on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, as well as video tutorials demonstrating how to make and safely wear a cloth face covering. 

The National Return to Work Safely Protocol can be accessed here.

We will continue to keep you up to date on developments through our dedicated COVID-19 Hub

If you have any specific queries in relation to COVID-19, please get in touch with your regular William Fry contact.  

 

Contributed by Órlaith Ní Mhadagáin

Key Contacts

Ailbhe Dennehy Partner

Jeffrey Greene Partner

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