May 17, 2024 - News

GOP-backed bill would outlaw most masks in public in North Carolina

Illustration of a covid mask with a hole in the shape of a gavel.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A bill that would roll back a pandemic-era law allowing people to wear masks in public for health reasons is gaining momentum in the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly.

State of play: House Bill 237 is not targeted at those who wear masks for health reasons but rather a response to the presence of masked protesters at pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses in recent weeks, Republican leaders have said.

  • The bill would also increase penalties for blocking roads, a tactic that some demonstrators have used, and increase penalties for those committing crimes while wearing a mask.
  • Democrats in the Senate tried to keep the health exception in the bill, saying it could keep immunocompromised people from wearing medical masks.

Driving the news: The N.C. Senate approved the mask bill in a 30-15 party-line vote this week, the Associated Press reported.

Flashback: In 2020, state lawmakers added an exemption to the state's public masking laws during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The pre-pandemic, anti-masking policies date back to 1953, when the state was, in part, trying to keep members of the Ku Klux Klan from wearing masks in public, AP noted.
  • During the pandemic, mask mandates in North Carolina also became a flashpoint, with Republicans often opposing Gov. Roy Cooper's mandates.

What they're saying: Republicans argued there was no health exception prior the pandemic and no record exists of someone being arrested for masking for health reasons then, WRAL reported.

Yes. but: Democrats said the exemption should stay both for the sake of immunocompromised people or those who want to protect their health.

  • "No one wants to see a grandmother arrested for wearing a mask. The fact, though, is that this would criminalize that process," Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County said, according to N.C. Newsline.

Between the lines: The mask measure could violate federal laws that protect free speech and access to government services, disability rights and free speech advocates say, per WRAL.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, led by a Cooper appointee, told lawmakers in a message that it had concerns with the bill.

  • DHHS says a legal interpretation of the bill would not classify wearing a mask for health reasons as a crime — but it could cause uncertainty for people who might need to wear a mask, or increase harassment of those who do, the department wrote in a message to lawmakers.
  • "This likely misunderstanding will have a chilling effect on the average person's willingness to wear a mask when it's appropriate for the protection of their own health and safety or the health and safety of others," DHHS wrote in the message.

What's next: The N.C. House could take it up next week and potentially make some changes to it.

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