Banks Closing Customer Accounts for Violating Mask Mandates

In coronavirus hot spots, the tensions over mask wearing are getting even hotter. Two large U.K. banks went so far as to threaten to close accounts for people who refuse to wear a mask in a branch without a legitimate exemption. Experts suggest ways to keep situations from boiling over.

Maybe this is a sign of things to come in retail banking as the coronavirus continues to spread: “If you refuse to wear a mask, we’ll close your account.”

Banks and credit unions can decline to serve customers who don’t comply with requirements to wear a mask, much as they can refuse to serve someone shoeless or shirtless. (In fact, before COVID many financial institutions refused admittance for people who wore masks.) But HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, went a step further in its U.K. market and told customers, politely but firmly, if you refuse to wear a mask in one of our branches, we may close your account.

Even in Britain, the country that coined “Keep Calm and Carry On,” patience is wearing thin as the island nation endures its third coronavirus lockdown. The U.K. government mandated mask wearing in bank branches and other retail businesses, but as always some people refuse to comply. A few of them have become abusive about it, taking it out on branch staff. HSBC UK made a gutsy move in order to protect its branch employees and other customers. Jackie Uhi, Head of Branch Network, issued this public statement:

“Our branch colleagues deserve respect and should not have to face violent or abusive behavior.”
— Jackie Uhi, HSBC

“Our branch colleagues are key workers, continuing to go to work in our branches every day so that customers who need them can access essential financial services. Sadly, some people are failing to protect themselves, our branch colleagues and other customers by refusing to wear a face covering inside our branches or observe social distancing. Our colleagues deserve respect and should not have to face violent or abusive behavior.”

“Consider whether you need to visit the branch or could manage your banking from the safety of your home via our digital channels,” the statement continued. “If you do visit us, please wear a face covering and maintain a safe distance from others. If individuals put themselves or our colleagues at risk, without a medical exemption, we reserve the right to withdraw their account.” (Emphasis added.)

Did HSBC go too far? So far, only one other U.K. financial institution, Barclays, has followed HSBC’s lead. Barclays told British newspaper The Sun, that it reserves the right to close accounts of those who act aggressively towards colleagues. It’s hard to argue against such a stance in the face of violence and even verbal abuse toward employees. However, many people who don’t wear masks do so quietly for deeply held personal reasons. Should they have their accounts closed? Some would lump this in with the anti-Conservative “cancel culture” meme swirling around social media.

In response to a query from The Financial Brand, an HSBC spokesperson said that so far the bank has not yet closed any accounts because of its new position.

Wide Variations Among U.S. Financial Institutions

In the U.S., where numerous states have seen large increases in COVID-19 cases from late fall into the winter, financial institutions may have to revisit their policies regarding customers wearing masks if tempers begin to flare here to a greater degree than they already have. An article in the National Law Journal cites increased reports of security guards and other employees confronted with violence while trying to enforce mask requirements at retail locations and restaurants.

That was before President Biden issued a 100-day mask order applicable to federal buildings employees and contractors. He also signed an executive order requesting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to pursue an emergency temporary standard to set up COVID-19 workplace safety standards. Such standards could include mandates on masks, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As far back as June 2020, the American Bankers Association urged its members to require customers to wear face masks. “We owe it to front-line bank staff to prioritize their safety and contribute to the wider effort to limit the spread of this infection,” said ABA president Rob Nichols.

Overall, however, the industry has been divided in its response to the mask situation. Some institutions — U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and Huntington Bank among them — require customers to wear masks to enter a branch. U.S. Bank’s site states: “We’re requiring our employees and customers to wear a mask, even if not required by law in that location.” Other institutions, such as Chase, ask customers to “wear masks, consistent with local guidance.”

Mask requirements vary greatly by state and local municipality. 37 states mandate face coverings in public, according to a compilation by AARP, but the details vary significantly. New York, for example, requires a mask when a person in a public place is “unable to maintain social distancing,” while North Carolina requires a face covering indoors “regardless of physical distancing” if someone from another household is present

Handling Customers Who Refuse to Wear a Mask

Allowing customers not wearing masks into business establishments creates a health and safety risk, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given CDC’s position, “businesses have a good faith basis to not accommodate an unmasked member of the public,” the National Law Review article observes, adding that “no-contact shopping alternatives should be considered and communicated to the customer where a disability is involved.”

The article offers context in regard to relevant parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and offers several practical suggestions for protecting employees and avoiding confrontations.

  • Make signage abundant and clear regarding mask and other safety precautions before customers enter the building.
  • When a customer attempts to enter a branch without a mask on, the institution can offer one.
  • Train employees on mask policies and procedures. For their own safety, employees should not argue with customers who refuse to wear a mask and potentially escalate the situation.
  • Employees should not attempt to block customers from entering or exiting the branch, or physically force customers to leave — let security or the police handle it.

Other suggestions for branch staff come from HR strategy and solution provider C2:

  • Make sure your employees know the local and state requirements thoroughly.
  • Employees should be trained on the polite way to request that people wear a mask. For example, “Our company policy is to require all visitors to wear a mask. Can I provide one to you?”
  • Offer alternatives such as curbside service, online options, or returning at another time.
  • Designate a manager to speak with a belligerent customer in a private location.

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