EXPLAINER

Coronavirus: Can a shop refuse to serve people not wearing masks?

Not the Bunnings lady. Picture: Karleen Minney
Not the Bunnings lady. Picture: Karleen Minney

She wasn't wearing a mask and she wasn't going to wear a mask and the staff had no right to ask her to wear a mask.

"You are not authorised by the Australian government to even ask me or question me about it," she said.

Indeed, she told the staff who were keeping their distance that she was being discriminated against by being asked to wear a mask.

"I can have you sued personally for discriminating against me as a woman."

"It is my right as a living woman to do whatever I want."

Was she right?

She was not.

Lawyers Rick Sarre and Juliette McIntyre of the University of South Australia told this paper that stores have a right to put conditions of entry.

Ms McIntyre likened insisting on masks to building sites insisting on hard hats.

Professor Sarre said shops could insist on customers wearing masks and then say: "Sorry, we cannot serve you, as it is a condition of entry."

In Victoria where mask-wearing is now a legal obligation, a shop would not even need to specifically state it near the entrance as a condition.

In other states and territories where mask-wearing is not a legal obligation, they might be advised to put a sign up insisting on masks.

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What can stores do?

They can certainly refuse to serve the person but they cannot use more than "reasonable" force to evict him or her.

"Reasonable" is debatable in a court of law and any force might be deemed unreasonable and, so, a criminal assault.

Stores can call the police. Ms McIntyre said that the police would usually usher the person out. In Victoria, there would also be the possibility of a $200 fine.

Police have the power to evict a trespasser (which a person in a shop against the wishes of the owner would be) but might be reluctant to get involved in a dispute.

The ultimate penalty

For some unfathomable reason, the lady thought it was a good idea to film the confrontation and put it on the web.

Her video has been viewed millions of times and rising.

She has now had a mountain of online ordure heaped on her.

It would be interesting to know what her friends and family made of her fame.

In other cases, rebels against the mask law have been dubbed COVIDIOTS by mass-market newspapers.

Whatever you do, there is a camera somewhere nearby, ready to film it.

The publicity may be far worse than a $200 fine.

A conspiracy?

We don't know the woman's motivation. She said that her right not to wear a mask was protected by the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, 1948. It isn't.

But there are a myriad crazy theories rattling around the web, some of them concerning COVID-19. They often have lots of capital letters and exclamation marks.

This is typical: "For the people who believe the mask mandate is a way for THEM to identify the free thinkers, WHY AREN'T YOU WEARING A MASK?!?! Do you want to be identified???"

One popular conspiracy site has 247,000 members and at the time of writing, 817 were online. Another has 1.3 million members, according to Dr Colin Klein, a philosopher at the Australian National University.

He said that the coronavirus was a perfect storm for conspiracists. "There's this big information vacuum so it's very easy for conspiracy theories to breed."

Some people may genuinely believe the conspiracies, he said, but there were others who didn't quite believe the detail of a specific theory but felt that something more was going on and the secretive authorities were behind whatever it was.

These people just believe "we aren't being told the truth".

How do you spot a bogus conspiracy theory?

They tend to have a set of characteristics, according to Ullrich Ecker of the University of Western Australia.

He and his colleagues spelled out the common factors:

  • There will be contradictions. Some conspiracists believe both that COVID-19 came from China and that everyone already had it. Both can't be true. Or they believe that the virus is a myth and also that the testing kits don't work.
  • Official figures are faked. This implies that many are in on the conspiracy but yet it remains secret.
  • There may be some secret intent to make a fortune or to take over the world.
  • Believers don't change the theory when contrary evidence is presented.
  • Even if there's no evidence, that absence becomes evidence that the theory is right. "The reason there's no proof of the conspiracy is because the conspirators did such a good job covering it up."
  • Believers manage to associate unconnected events in ways which don't add up when scrutinised.

How should you counter conspiracy theories?

With scepticism and clear thought.

Dr Klein urged people to ask whether something was likely. They should distinguish between what is possible and what is probable.

"It's possible that every doctor and media organisation is lying but is it likely?" he urged people to ask. "It's hard to imagine that every doctor and media organisation is keeping quiet about it."

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To sum up: don't believe everything you read on the web. Trust reputable sources of information - like this paper.

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This story Can a shop refuse to serve people not wearing masks? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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