Proposed North Carolina law would make it illegal to wear masks in public

Republican senators in North Carolina on Wednesday passed a bill revoking a pandemic-era law allowing for masks to be worn in public for health concerns.

The legislative proposal, dubbed the “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” bill, was passed along party lines 30-15, despite outcries from some Senate Democrats to tweak it, allowing for the exception of mask use in public for anyone who feels their health, or the health of their loved ones, is compromised without one.

Most of the bill’s focus is enhancing penalties for people wearing a mask during a crime, which can include protests, and intentionally blocking traffic during demonstrations.

“It’s about time that the craziness is … at least slowed down, if not put to a stop,” Republican Sen. Buck Newton, who presented the bill, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

He could not be reached Thursday afternoon for additional comment.

Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus said Thursday the bill jeopardizes the health of the public, and turns otherwise law-abiding people into criminals.

“It makes it a criminal act to wear a mask to protect yourself or others from communicable diseases,” Marcus said.

She said she’s heard from constituents who are “desperate for someone to listen to them when they say, ‘I’m immunocompromised, or my family member is, or I’m going through chemotherapy or I have a disability.’ There are many reasons why people need to, and should have, the freedom to wear a mask to protect themselves.”

The latest version of the bill, which goes back to the House, where it was initially proposed and could still be altered, repeals “the health and safety exemption from certain laws prohibiting the wearing of masks in public.”

“Individuals would no longer be able to wear masks in public for health or safety reasons,” according to the bill.

The ACLU of North Carolina opposes the bill and called it “deeply troubling, un-democratic, and, unconstitutional.” The organization said the bill is a response to “pro-Palestine protests on college campuses.”

“When we look at the conduct the legislators point to in support of the bill — trespass, assault on law enforcement, and damage to public property — we know that those things are already illegal. Since that is the case, what is this bill really about?” the statement said, adding that it is “about suppressing dissent.”

Proponents of the bill have argued it is needed in response to the demonstrations, including those at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that escalated to police clashes and arrests.

Protests and encampments have popped up at college campuses since Hamas attacked Israel in October. While most campus demonstrations have remained peaceful, there have been clashes, at times, between police and protesters, some of whom have worn surgical-style masks.

Newton on Tuesday brushed off concerns that getting rid of pandemic-era exemptions on masks was overly broad, saying he expects authorities to use “good common sense.”

“We didn’t see granny getting arrested in the Walmart pre-Covid,” he said as he presented the bill in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

Marcus said Thursday that it’s not right to put the onus on law enforcement to use discretion.

“That’s not how the criminal law is supposed to work. It’s either a crime or it’s not,” she said, adding the bill’s passage in the Senate by Republicans is nothing more than a culture war vote.

“They are clearly trying to feed red meat to their anti-vax, anti-science, anti-mask base with this bill,” Marcus said. “I do think it was initially sparked by student protests on various campuses across our state. But the fact is if they just wanted to address those student protests, they did not need to ban masks for everyone.”

The masking bill will likely move through a few committees before hitting the House floor, which could take one or two weeks, according to House Rules Committee Chairman Destin Hall.

Republicans have a super-majority in both the House and Senate. Marcus said if the bill passes the House, she’s hoping Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoes it.

No one with Cooper’s office could immediately be reached Thursday afternoon for comment.

The health exemption was added at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic along largely bipartisan lines.

The repeal would return public masking rules to their pre-pandemic form — created in 1953 to address a different issue: limiting Ku Klux Klan activity in North Carolina, according to a 2012 book by Washington University in St. Louis sociology professor David Cunningham.

Stacy Staggs, 47, of Charlotte, has 10-year-old twin daughters who are immunocompromised because they were born prematurely.

One of the twins was on a ventilator for 88 days after birth, giving her chronic lung disease, and has had a tracheostomy, a procedure to open the trachea to help her breathe better, Staggs said Thursday.

“Things that hit us a little bit, hit her very hard and take weeks or months to recover from,” Staggs said.

Staggs said she wears a mask, as do her daughters, every time they are out in public.

“I am beside myself. I can’t imagine that we’ve got to a place where protecting individual health and safety is a criminal act,” she said. “There’s nothing criminal about my lifestyle or actions.”

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