North Carolina bill to curb mask-wearing in protests could make it illegal for medical reasons too

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — People wearing a mask during protests in North Carolina could face extra penalties if arrested, under proposed legislation that critics say could make it illegal to wear a mask in public as a way to protect against COVID-19 or for other health reasons.

Republicans supporters say the legislation, which passed its first committee Tuesday, was prompted in part by the recent wave of protests on universities nationwide — including at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — against Israel’s war in Gaza.

GOP Sen. Buck Newton 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,” Newton said as he presented the bill Tuesday in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

While the main thrust of the bill enhances penalties for people wearing a mask during a crime or intentionally blocking traffic during protests, most concerns centered on the health and safety exemption. According to the bill's summary, people could no longer wear masks in public for medical reasons.

“You say, ‘Well, this wasn’t a problem before COVID,’” Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus told Newton. “The world is different now. We can’t go back to when pandemics didn’t happen.”

The exemption was originally added to state statutes in 2020 along mostly bipartisan lines.

The general statutes on masking go back to 1953. As a way to curb Ku Klux Klan membership in North Carolina, the state legislature passed a slew of restrictions targeting “prohibited secret societies,” including most public masking, according to a 2012 book about the KKK authored by David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

During public comment, several speakers also voiced disapproval for the bill, such as Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of the North Carolina For the People voter engagement coalition, who called the legislation an “anti-protest bill” that aimed to curb free speech.

If passed, the bill would enhance punishments for people using a mask to disguise their identity while committing a crime — making their misdemeanor or felony one class higher than if they weren't wearing a mask. Intentionally blocking traffic or obstructing emergency vehicles for a protest would also be criminalized.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, instances of pro-Palestinian protesters blocking roadways have occurred across the country, including in Raleigh and Durham. In recent weeks, tensions escalated on UNC's campus with several arrests and clashes with police. Many demonstrators wore masks during the protests.

When the bill was first discussed last week, it was met with silence from all committee members. That wasn't the case on Tuesday, as several Democratic legislators, as well as members of the public, expressed concern with the bill's potential ramifications.

Sen. Sydney Batch, a Wake County Democrat who said she was immunocompromised during the pandemic, cited the health exemption removal as one of her biggest concerns about the bill.

When asked by Batch if someone wearing a mask for health purposes in public would be violating the law, a legislative staff member said it would, because the bill repeals the exemption.

Newton said he could revisit the bill if problems arise.

Batch told reporters after the committee that she planned to meet with Newton this week to discuss her issues with the bill before it reaches the Senate floor.

Newton told reporters last week he expected the Senate to want to pass the bill, but he had yet to have further conversations with the House to see if it would be prioritized.