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In-N-Out bans employees from wearing masks in order to show ‘associates’ smiles’

Failure to comply with the new guidelines could lead to termination, the company memo said.
Re-built In-N-Out Opens
A In-N-Out Burger employee wears a mask in Santa Ana, California, on April 1, 2021. Leonard Ortiz / Orange County Register via Getty Images file
/ Source: TODAY

California-based fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger is prohibiting employees from masking for medical reasons in five of the seven states in which it has locations unless they receive a medical note from a doctor.

The new policy takes effect in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah on Aug. 14, according to a company memo that was leaked to the public July 14 by Dr. Lucky Tran.

The chain is also mandating that employees who choose to wear masks in two other states, Oregon and California, only wear company-approved N95 masks.

“We are introducing new mask guidelines that emphasize the importance of customer service and the ability to show our associates’ smiles and other facial features while considering the health and well-being of all individuals,” the memo reads, later adding, “no mask shall be worn in the store of support facility unless an associate has a valid medical note exempting him or her from this requirement.”

The new guidance caused a stir on social media.

“Ugh, this is awful,” one person tweeted in disagreement. “Let people wear masks to protect themselves!”

“Yikes. Won’t be eating there for a bit,” another tweeted. Several others said they would boycott In-N-Out over the decision.

“Awesome! I just got a double double to celebrate!” another tweeted in support of the new policy.

“Wow, you guys still worried about covid?” another Twitter user asked.

The leaked memo says the policy “will be reviewed periodically to ensure effectiveness and compliance with evolving health guidance. Revisions to the policy will be communicated to all associated in a timeline manner.”

It also says that “failure to comply with this policy may result in appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment, based on the severity and frequency of the violation.”

When reached for comment, In-N-Out's chief operating officer, Denny Warnick, issued the following statement:

At In-N-Out Burger, we’ve communicated with our smiles since 1948, and a smiling Associate helps to set a warm and inviting atmosphere in our stores. We believe that wearing a mask literally adds a barrier to communication — much of which is nonverbal — and promotes a more distant and disconnected environment.

In balancing these fundamental values while still accommodating the specific circumstances affecting our Associates, we have updated our internal guidelines to permit only those Associates with a medical need to wear a facemask while working. This change will be effective August 14, 2023, where local regulations allow.

Dr. Judy Stone, an infectious disease physician and medical writer, penned a Forbes piece published July 17 in which she said the policy may intrude on employees’ health privacy.

“Without disclosing a medical diagnosis, In-N-Out’s new policy mandates, ‘The medical note should clearly state the reason for the exemption and the estimated duration.’ How is this to be done without violating the employee’s privacy?” she asked.

Stone also criticized the reasoning for the policy.

“Risking their employees’ health in such a fashion may be ‘unmatched,’ but not in the way company officials believe,” she wrote. “And if their only concern is seeing their employees’ smiles, there are masks with transparent windows over the mouth.”

The doctor additionally took issue with requiring a doctor's note for some exemptions.

“Requiring a doctor’s note is also a burden in terms of time and money,” she explained. “Many people don’t have a primary care physician or one who is readily available. And requiring proof of a disability might be considered a violation of the Americans with Disability Act, depending on how one interprets masking as a request for accommodation.”

In-N-Out’s new mask guidance is just the latest example of the chain’s controversial stances on the pandemic. In October 2021, local officials ordered the chain’s lone San Francisco location to shut down over failure to comply with requirements that all restaurants check vaccination cards for indoor diners. The chain later closed all five of its locations in a neighboring area, Contra Costa County, to avoid having to follow its public health mandate.

“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” chief legal and business officer for In-N-Out, Arnie Wensinger, said in a statement at the time.

“It is unreasonable, invasive, and unsafe to force our restaurant associates to segregate customers into those who may be served and those who may not, whether based on the documentation they carry, or any other reason.”

EDITOR'S NOTE (July 24, 2023 at 9:19 a.m. ET): This story has been updated to include a statement from In-N-Out.