It was just hours after the Massachusetts mandate had taken effect this month requiring people to cover their faces in public, when Paul Cohen ventured outside without a mask.
The 48-year-old Cambridge man has severe asthma, and wearing a mask makes breathing near-impossible. The first couple of times he tried wearing a face covering while walking, he had terrible headaches — “eyes bulging out of my head,” he said — and he almost passed out.
So he left his mask behind last Wednesday when he went to his local H Mart for groceries. Normally, his wife would have done the shopping, Cohen said, but he was trying to help out while she was working from home.
The H Mart employees wouldn’t let him inside, he said.
“I think everyone that can wear a mask should wear a mask. I’m just one of those people who can’t," he said. "But it’s embarrassing to have to stand there and explain myself to someone.”
Cohen is one of countless people who fall under the state’s certified exemptions for wearing a mask — an exemption he said not enough people seem to know about.
The mandate signed by Governor Charlie Baker, which went into effect on May 6, requires anyone above the age of 2 to wear a face covering when they’re in public and cannot maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.
But according to guidance from the state Department of Public Health, people can be exempt from wearing a mask if they would not be able to breathe safely, have a behavioral health diagnosis that makes them unable to wear a mask, are accompanying someone who relies on lip reading to communicate, or need supplemental oxygen to breathe.
“I want people to understand that we’re not doing something wrong," Cohen said. “We’re not bad people.”
In the days since the incident, Cambridge officials have met with managers at H Mart to discuss the exemptions. A spokesman for the city said they “will continue to follow up with other local grocery stores, pharmacies, and retail stores regarding this order and to ensure they are aware of the medical exemption.”
A representative for H Mart said company leaders are looking into the incident and “plan to make any appropriate actions.”
Local groups that assist people with various health conditions and disabilities say it’s important for everyone to have their rights protected, even — and especially — during a pandemic.
For some with behavioral health diagnoses, such as autism, wearing a mask simply isn’t possible, said Leo V. Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, which works with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“There’s some people who physically can do it but behaviorally can’t,” he said. “We should try to make accommodations in those situations. It’s not like someone’s doing it on purpose because they’re being obstinate.”
Rick Glassman, who has worked on issues regarding access to public accommodations for the Disability Law Center, said Cohen’s story is a good reminder that “one size fits all does not always work.”
“It’s often the case that an individual, an employee, or a place of public accommodation who tries to treat everyone exactly the same ends up engaging inadvertently in discrimination,” Glassman said. “The disability rights laws continue to apply during this period right now. There’s no pandemic exception to the [Americans with Disabilities Act].”
Cohen said the employees at H Mart were respectful to him despite the “unfortunate situation.” But he hopes his story can educate business owners about the exemptions to the mask mandate so other people don’t experience what he did.
“You really can’t see what’s wrong with someone if they’re walking down the street," he said. “That’s the whole basis of discrimination.”