Opinion: Really, In-N-Out? A mask ban for employees?

In-N-Out burger signs near palm tree and fronds
In-N-Out Burger plans to impose new masking rules for employees next month.
(Adam Lau / Associated Press)

Since news leaked out this week that In-N-Out, the $3 billion hamburger empire, will next month start enforcing an outright ban against employees choosing to mask at work, don’t feel alone if your first reaction was pure confusion. Who would possibly want a return of the bitter mask battles of 2020, the shouting matches in the public square, the frightening threats to public health workers?

For better and worse, Americans settled on regarding masking against COVID as a personal choice based on personal assessments of risk, and everyone is encouraged to respect one another’s choices as valid. Although some rejected that shift as a surrender to preventable disease, others welcomed it as a much-longed-for truce.

Yet, suddenly this summer, here comes In-N-Out treating the decision to mask not as a valid personal decision well-rooted in the realities of an ever-mutating virus, but as some kind of threat to having a burger.


The California-based burger chain plans to ban face masks on employees in five of the seven states in which it operates, citing the importance of staff “smiles” for customers.

July 17, 2023

The company claims its motivation is good customer service, demanding “clear and effective communication” while showing off an employee’s “smiles and other facial features.” Yet, interestingly, In-N-Out’s company no-mask policy won’t apply in two of its biggest markets: California and Oregon, where employer mask bans have been forbidden by law. The five states where In-N-Out management is ready to sacrifice their employees’ ability to protect their own health in the name of customer service are Texas, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona.

The inconsistencies of the company policies appear to be driven by fears of litigation. The leaked company memos also carefully slice and dice a fundamentally discriminatory policy to give the appearance of reasonably accommodating workers whose medical histories place them at highest risk from COVID. Any In-N-Out worker will be permitted to mask if they can provide a doctor’s note detailing for management a medical reason.

In-N-Out employees whom management deems at sufficiently dire risk in the five states with bans, as well as California and Oregon workers who choose to mask, will be required to wear a company-provided N95 — which In-N-Out’s policy practically shouts “provide the highest level of protection for COVID-19 and other viruses and are recommended by OSHA for other respiratory protections.” Do tell.

It’s less clear what will happen to the In-N-Out employees who don’t have a doctor’s note on file but come face to face with an ominously hacking customer, or are called into a meeting with a manager who doesn’t stay home despite knowing he’s infectious, or who take seriously the safety warnings issued by health authorities if and when community transmission spikes. In-N-Out says noncompliant employees can be fired, meaning employees will be faced with a choice of risking their jobs or risking their health. Can we all agree this is wrong?

The East Coast and Midwest getting hit by wildfire smoke show that air pollution affects everyone and we need better protections, especially to confront climate change.

June 16, 2023

Whatever fate befalls In-N-Out’s ill-considered policy, it could embolden other business managers to take a hard stand against masks, or employee litigation could tie up new bans for years. Three years after the start of pandemic, what ought to make headlines is that we actually don’t have to doom ourselves to fighting these forever mask wars. We could instead finally deploy the affordable tech we already have to clean indoor air. Readily available, evidence-backed purifying air filters and safe far-UV light could be easily installed in both public and private spaces. Some are already being sold for home use.

Many clean air devices plug into standard outlets or can be fixed on walls. They can accommodate spaces of many sizes and are energy efficient. Powerful ventilation tools can be made by amateurs for less than $60. While safe far-UV light needs professional installation, the military is already using this tech, as are dentists, nightclubs, conference organizers and gyms.


We could actually leap over the futility of the mask divide and give everybody — employees, customers, babies and others who cannot mask at all, patients sleeping in hospitals, in congregate living facilities — the life-saving benefit of safe, healthy indoor air to breathe.

The sudden arrival of toxic wildfire smoke from Canada that threatened the health of Americans underscores the urgency. The public health response to that air quality emergency, and the enthusiasm for DIY and other solutions easily bought online, point to some of our potential solutions for securing clean air for all.

We now need similar action to clean indoor air of viruses ahead of the looming return to school and the holiday gathering season. We need sincere and truly visionary customer-friendly business owners who will embrace the task of cleaning the air for their valued patrons and employees alike.

We’ve learned much about the once-unknown virus that causes COVID-19 — yet we still haven’t picked up many of the most effective tools sitting there on the shelf. That’s where the problem is, not with masks or each other. So let’s quit arguing and banning public health tools and just get this done.

Kathleen Quinn is a retired journalist.