North Carolina bill to prevent protesters from using masks to hide their identities advances without health exemption

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are moving forward with their plan to repeal a pandemic-era law that allowed the wearing of masks in public for health reasons, a move prompted by anti-Israel protests that have seen masked demonstrators camping out on university campuses.

The legislation – House Bill 237 – was approved by the state Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 30-15 along party lines, despite several attempts by state Senate Democrats to amend the bill. The bill, which would increase penalties for anyone wearing a mask while committing a crime, including arrested protesters, could still be amended when it returns to the House.

Opponents of the bill say it endangers the health of those who wear masks for safety reasons. Those who support the legislation say it is a necessary response to protests, including those at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which have escalated into clashes with police and arrests. The bill also criminalizes blocking roads or emergency vehicles during a protest, which occurred during anti-Israel protests in Raleigh and Durham.

“It’s time for this madness to stop, at least slow down, if not stop,” Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, who introduced the bill, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

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An anti-Israel protester wearing a mask and a Palestinian flag on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, April 24, 2024. (Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what this bill does and how the law works, and it’s no wonder so many people are afraid,” Newton added, according to NC Newsline, questioning the motivations of those who oppose the legislation. “I think some of us are wondering what the real motivations of the people on the other side of the House are, to scare everyone and make them feel like sometimes they need to wear masks because they’re immunocompromised in one way or another, they’re going to be arrested.”

Much of the resistance to the bill has focused on removing health and safety exemptions from wearing a mask in public.

The health exemption was added early in the COVID-19 pandemic along largely bipartisan lines. The removal would return public masking rules to their pre-pandemic form, which were created in 1953 to solve a different problem: limiting Ku Klux Klan activity in North Carolina, the Associated Press reported, citing a book in 2012 from Washington University in St. Louis. sociology professor David Cunningham.

Democratic lawmakers reiterated their concern about how removing protections for people who choose to wear a mask for their health could put immunocompromised North Carolinians at risk of breaking the law. Legislative staff told a committee Tuesday that wearing a mask for health purposes would violate the law.

“With this bill, you are making criminals out of careful people,” Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County said on the Senate floor. “It’s a bad law.”

“Do you really find masked chemo patients so threatening? Does something about them really make you angry?” Marcus added, according to WRAL. “Or is it more likely a desire to score political points with anti-maskers during an election period, to the detriment of vulnerable people?”

Masked protesters in North Carolina

Anti-Israel protesters on the UNC campus in Charlotte, April 25, 2024. (Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Simone Hetherington, an immunocompromised person who spoke before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, said wearing a mask helps protect her from illness and worries the law could prevent the practice.

“We live in different times and I’m being bullied,” Hetherington said of his mask-wearing. “All it takes is one bad actor.”

But Republican lawmakers continued to express doubt that a person would get into legal trouble for masking due to health concerns, saying law enforcement and prosecutors would exercise discretion in deciding to ‘indict someone. Newton said the bill focuses on criminalizing masks solely for the purpose of concealing a person’s identity.

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“I feel the politics on the other side of the aisle when they scare people to death over a bill that will only criminalize people who try to hide their identity so they can do something bad” , Newton said.

Three Democratic senators proposed amendments to maintain the health exemption and exclude hate groups from masking, but Senate Republicans used a procedural mechanism to block them without a vote.

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Public comment speaker Simone Hetherington urges lawmakers not to pass the masking bill during the State Senate Rules Committee meeting at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Wednesday May 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Mikiya Seminar)

Future changes to the bill could be a possibility, but it would ultimately be up to the House, Newton told reporters after the vote, according to the AP. Robeson County Republican Sen. Danny Britt also told a previous committee that he anticipated “some adjustments.” House Rules Committee Chairman Destin Hall, a House Republican from Caldwell County, told reporters before the Senate vote that the House plans to “take a look at it” but that members wanted to crack down on people who wear masks when committing crimes.

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The masking bill will likely go through a few committees before reaching the House, which could take a week or two, Hall said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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