Senate Judiciary Committee furthers effort to repeal health exemption for public mask wearing

A bill that would make public mask wearing illegal under almost all circumstances cleared the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday by voice vote.

House Bill 237, which is labeled “unmasking mobs and criminals,” would repeal an existing health and safety exemption for wearing masks in public put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also provides stiffer penalties for crimes committed while “wearing a mask, hood, or other clothing or device to conceal or attempt to conceal the defendant’s identity.”

Proponents of the bill, including Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican representing Green, Wayne and Wilson counties, say the measure prevents criminals from using outdated COVID protections to hide their identities.

Those against the measure, including several Democratic lawmakers and the balance of public speakers at Tuesday’s hearing, contend the bill attacks civil liberties and ignores the ongoing public health benefits of masking indoors and at crowded outdoor spaces. Critics expressed concern about the impact on the immunocompromised or ill.

Newton said “this bill is not about health care,” but would ensure people aren’t hiding their identities to commit crimes.

“What a lot of people probably don’t remember or don’t recall is that we’re just really resetting the law to what it was pre-COVID,” Newton said Tuesday while presenting the bill to the Judiciary Committee. “Some of us are old enough to remember that we had this legislation in place mainly to deal with secret societies like the KKK. And that’s what the purpose of this legislation was then and that’s really what the purpose is now is to deal with organizations and individuals who are intent on breaking the law and hiding their identity and using the hiding of their identity as a way to intimidate other people to get away with it.”

Public mask wearing is already illegal in North Carolina, which outlawed the practice in an effort to stamp out hooded Ku Klux Klan activities in the 1950s. The ban includes exceptions for “masquerade balls” and “wearing traditional holiday costumes in season” as well as protective gear for first responders and other emergency workers.

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, exceptions were granted “for the physical health or safety of the wearer or others.” Section one of the new law would wipe out that exception.

Sen. Sydney Batch, a Democrat representing Wake County, was receiving cancer treatments that weakened her immune system during the pandemic. She took issue with repealing the health-and-safety exemption to the mask ban that allowed her to wear life-saving personal protective equipment in public.

“My issue is that we are removing this specific section that gave people who are immunocompromised or people who were sick and just care about the community … someone walking around with tuberculosis wants to wear masks to protect everybody else is no longer able to do that based on this bill,” she said.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat representing Mecklenburg County near Charlotte, said outlawing masks for health reasons is “outrageous.”

“This bill … says it’s now illegal to wear a mask if you’re doing it for the safety of yourself and others and that is an outrageous change to make. It’s not appropriate,” Marcus said. “That should not be a criminal act for them to be able to protect themselves and protect others from communicable diseases from those who are on chemotherapy.”

Several members of the public decried the measure as counter to public health science. Quisha Mallette, a staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center, lodged her complaints to the committee while wearing an N95 mask.

She asked the committee to vote down a “bill that further criminalizes individuals engaged in constitutionally protected free speech, with particularly dire consequences for those who are young and living in Black and brown communities who are asking to be heard on important matters concerning their lives.”

“I stand before you today masked,” Mallette added. “I am also wearing my nametag so my identity in this case is revealed. I mask in indoor spaces and outdoor crowded spaces whenever I can. If I were not permitted to wear a mask in public, it would greatly limit which spaces I could visit. And for me this is an access issue.”

Coupled with another provision in the bill that would make impeding traffic a class-2 misdemeanor, other members of the public assailed the bill as an attack on the rights of protest and assembly. The legislation would also impose criminal and civil liability on anyone obstructing emergency vehicles during demonstrations.

Liz Barbara, a policy attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said the bill is “part of a broader attack on democracy we are seeing at the state legislature while most lawmakers who support these attacks on the right to protest are also leading efforts to make it harder to vote and to participate in the legislative process.”

In response, Newton underscored his insistence that the bill is “not trying to address healthcare issues.”

“Individuals may have chemotherapy, other immunocompromised type of situations,” he said. “I understand why that will concern them. I think there’s people out there trying to prey upon their fear about that. This was not a problem pre-COVID. We didn’t see grannie getting arrested in the Walmart pre-COVID. Frankly, I don’t think we’re gonna see that when we pass this legislation. And I think those that are suggesting otherwise or are stoking fear.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which will mark up the bill and recommend any changes to the full chamber.


This story was authored by Dan Parsons for Southeast Politics.

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