The applicability of mask mandates requires their accessibility. According to the COVID19 Act,
medical supplies necessary to face the COVID-19 pandemic – a definition which includes masks – are
treated as an essential good. This Act allows direct distribution of such goods by the Cantons or, at
least subsidiarily, by the Confederation.
People depending on social aid contributions (Sozialhilfe) or supplementary contributions
(Ergänzungsleistungen) have a right that the cost of masks be covered by the state, or to the
distribution of free masks. In particular, State authorities must ensure that children have access to
the masks they need to go to school (if necessary by handing the masks out to them).
For people with no access to social aid (people in irregular situations, people sanctioned by the
social authorities, etc.) the constitutional guarantee for a contribution of the state is much lower
than what is provided for by social aid and includes merely shelter, food, clothing, hygiene and
basic health care. In the current situation, however, masks are part of the minimum means each
person living or temporarily staying in this country has a right to.
Masks are needed to protect oneself and others (family members, clients, co-passengers, etc.)
and mandatory in public transports as well as shops and schools (depending on cantons).
Many people need masks to work or go to work (or to go to school, etc.). On this basis, it can
be argued that masks have become essential goods: they are required for essential parts of
life. Moreover, the applicability of mask mandates requires their accessibility.
The new COVID-19 Act (Federal Act on the legal bases of the Federal Council Ordinances to
overcome the COVID-19 epidemic), adopted by the Federal Parliament on September 25,
2020, and which came into force with immediate (and retroactive) effect on September 17,
2020 (RO 2020 3835-3844), prescribes that in order to supply the population with important
medical goods, the Federal Council can “acquire significant medical goods itself; in this case, it
settles the financing of the acquisition and reimbursement of costs by the cantons and the
establishments to which the goods are delivered” and can “provide for the allocation, delivery
and distribution of important medical goods” (Art. 3 para. 2 let. e and f; paragraph 3 specifies
that the Federal Council may not take the measures referred to in para. 2, let. e and f only to
the extent that the supply cannot be guaranteed by the cantons and private individuals).
These goods are defined in Art. 3 para. 1 as therapeutic products, protective equipment and
other medical goods important for the maintenance of public health capacity. This is
confirmed by the Federal Council message (FF 2020 6363-6420). This disposition is explicitly
grounded in Art. 118, para. 2, let. b of the Federal Constitution which provides that «1. The
Confederation shall, within the limits of its powers, take measures for the protection of health
…; b. the combating of communicable, widespread or particularly dangerous human and
animal diseases» (FF 2020 6417). According to the Federal Council message, this disposition in
Art. 3 of the COVID-19 Act (= Art. 2 of the COVID-19 Bill) reformulates dispositions already
present in the 3rd COVID-19 Ordinance of June 19th 2020: Art. 16, para. 1 of this Ordinance
stipulates that «The Confederation or third parties which it mandates ensure the delivery of
important medical goods acquired in conformity with art. 14 to the central cantonal delivery
services. In exceptional cases, the Confederation can, in agreement with the cantons, deliver
such goods directly to establishments and organizations which have a right to them.»
Medical supplies necessary to face the COVID-19 pandemic – a definition which includes
masks – are therefore treated as an essential good. The COVID-19 Act allows direct
distribution by the Cantons or, at least subsidiarily, by the Confederation.
The Swiss Conference on Social Aid has issued a directive according to which masks are, in
general, not part of the basic but of the situational special needs. People in need therefore
must not use the minimum amount paid by the social aid services to cover the cost of the
masks but must receive an extra amount for this purpose. When municipal or cantonal social
services calculate their contribution, they must therefore add the cost of masks for all persons
above the age of 12. Alternatively, they can pay for four textile masks of sufficient quality per
person. According to the Conference, the handing out of masks is an option (see link).
People depending on social aid contributions (Sozialhilfe) or supplementary contributions
(Ergänzungsleistungen) have a right that the cost of masks be covered by the state. The state
authorities can fulfill their duty by adding an extra amount or by handing out free masks. As
they have a duty of care, they must opt for the distribution of free masks whenever they have
reason to fear that people in need and their families will otherwise end up without masks. In
particular, they must ensure that children have the masks they need in order to go to school
(if necessary by handing the masks out to them).
People with no access to social aid (people in irregular situations, people sanctioned by the
social authorities, etc.) have a fundamental human right to assistance and care when in need
(emergency aid). This social right, guaranteed by the Federal Constitution (Article 12), obliges
the cantons and the communes to provide the “means required for a decent standard of
living”. The financial or in kind contribution of the state based on Art. 12 is much lower than
what is provided for by social aid – it is a bare minimum, not a social minimum – and includes
Masks as an essential good? 4
merely shelter, food, clothing, hygiene and basic health care (BGE 138 V 310, E. 2.3). In the
current situation, however, masks are part of the minimum means each person living or
temporarily staying in this country has a right to. In addition to being part of the bare
minimum, masks in this context are also a means to fulfill the duty of the state to take
measures to address the risk of an epidemic.
As masks are essential – from a human rights perspective and from an epidemiological
perspective – measures must be taken to ensure that they are available to all people in need.
Social aid or assistance authorities play a crucial role in this regard. However, they must
cooperate with civil society actors which have (better) access to people outside of the formal
aid system (such as homeless people).
Some NGOs have already taken useful measures. Caritas, for instance, distributes free masks
at the entrance of its shops. As only people with special badges have access to these shops,
the masks (which have been sponsored) are distributed to economically vulnerable
Private initiatives are most welcome. The Confederation, the Cantons, and the communes are,
however, obliged to complement these initiatives – each actor within its sphere of
competences (Art. 41 para. 1 lit. c of the Federal Constitution). The constitutional duty is
complemented by an international one. The UN Covenant on economic, social and cultural
rights obliges all state actors to take steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of
epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” (Art. 12 para. 2 lit. c).
As a rule, the cantons and communes are responsible for social aid and emergency aid and
bear the cost of it. The Confederation, however, is also involved, for instance in regard to
people in federal asylum centres. In addition, Confederation and cantons owe each other
cooperation and support (Art. 44 para. 2 of the Federal Constitution). This duty is most
important when masks are scarce, but it applies in all situations.
As outlined above, the COVID-19 Act also allows the Confederation, at least subsidiarily, to
directly distribute important medical goods.
Beyond these reflections on social assistance, another question that arises is whether a right
to the free distribution of protective masks does not result, for all students attending
compulsory schooling, from the fundamental right to free, public basic education under
Article 19 of the Federal Constitution. According to the case law of the Federal Supreme
Court, the “right to free education includes all means necessary and directly serving the
purpose of education” (ATF 144 I 1). Free education means covering the costs of transport,
particularly when the way to school is particularly long or dangerous (JAAC 2000, Nos. 1 and
56) and in principle also extends to teaching materials (the question is somewhat discussed in
literature). However, the Court has thus ruled, for example, that since participation in
excursions and other school camps (such as ski camps) is compulsory, these should be
considered part of the necessary basic education. Participation must therefore be free of
charge, and only the costs that the pupils and their parents save as a result of the absence of
their child(ren), i.e. the cost of meals, may be charged to them (ATF 144 I 1; see also, more
generally, ATF 145 I 142, and ATF 141 I 9).
Therefore, insofar as the wearing of masks is declared compulsory in public schools at the
level of compulsory schooling, the distribution of masks in these schools should also be part of
the services that the school must provide free of charge.
ATF 141 I 9, AA. und Mitb. g. Schulpflege V. und Regierungsrat des Kantons Aargau, of
December 4th, 2014
ATF 144 I 1, A. und Mitb. g. Grosser Rat des Kantons Thurgau, of December 7th, 2017
ATF 145 I 142, A.X. c. Département de l’instruction publique, de la culture et du sport, of
October 29th, 2018