North Carolina lawmaker fights state anti-masking legislation

There's a bill that's currently making its way through the North Carolina General Assembly, the official name of which is House Bill 237, also known as the 'Unmasking Mobs and Criminals' bill.

Supporters say the bill's purpose is to curb the use of face masks in public to conceal an alleged criminal's identity during the commission of a crime. To do so, it would effectively repeal "from certain laws" a pandemic-era exemption that permitted mask-wearing in public for health reasons, with violators subject to arrest.

The Republican-majority North Carolina Senate passed the legislation on Wednesday by a 30-15 vote, sending it back for consideration to the GOP-majority state House, where it could still be changed.

Sydney Batch, a Democratic lawmaker in the North Carolina Senate since 2021, stated that legislation prohibiting wearing masks in public in North Carolina dates back to the 1950s, when it was enacted to address the Ku Klux Klan's practice of wearing hoods. She worries that eliminating the 2020 update, enacted to ensure compliance with mask-wearing regulations, could leave people subject to prosecution if they continue to wear masks in public to protect their health. Batch is also a cancer survivor, and said she and her family wore masks to protect her when she was immunocompromised during her treatment.


Sen. Batch spoke with "Start Here" on Tuesday about the 'Unmasking Mobs and Criminals' bill.

START HERE: Senator Batch, thanks for joining us. This bill, passed in the Senate last week is moving right now to the House, they're going to consider it this week. Can you just describe what's in it?

BATCH: Thank you for having me. So, this bill actually passed the Senate last week. It was quickly introduced into our committee on Judiciary and then moved to the floor for a vote. And what the bill basically does is it states that if you are wearing a mask and for any reason other than a couple of exceptions – Halloween, if you're part of a secret society, etc. – then you would be violating the law and it would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Prior to 2020, this was the law of the land. But in 2020, during COVID, we actually passed a bill that had a public health exception. And so you could wear it for your own public health and safety. Well, my colleagues have actually removed that provision. And during the floor debate last week, we talked about adding it back in and ran amendments. Unfortunately, that failed. And that's how the bill has now passed. So it no longer has the exemption for health. And we know if it passes, the House will be in a position where the governor of our state has to veto it. And unfortunately, it may be overridden because we have a supermajority in both chambers.

START HERE: And you said this was already almost like pretty much the law of the land before. Why? What was what's the rationale of this and why the return of it?

BATCH: My Republican colleagues have talked about the fact that this was put in place in 1954, I believe, and that was to address the Ku Klux Klan with regards to wearing hoods during the 1950s. However, we changed it in 2020. And so a number of my Republican colleagues continue to say that there's been an increase in protests where people have been abusing that mask provision. And I actually don't disagree with them in that regard, in that, you know, there are some bad actors that will come into a protest and they will try and disguise their face. But that doesn't mean that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that we can do hard things, and that's what we're elected to do. And so, when we have provided as Democrats – myself and another colleague, Senator Grafstein – provided intent language with regards to wearing a mask and requirements that would mean that you could wear it if you were immunocompromised, if you wanted to protect somebody in your home, etc., you could remove the mask if law enforcement asks you to do so to identify your face, and then you could still wear it. But both of those amendments were voted down. So I don't understand why there wasn't a reasonable compromise because I do believe law enforcement need to do their job, and we also need to protect the immunocompromised.

START HERE: That's what it seems like this is all about, right? Is weighing risks and benefits, right? Like the risks of having fewer people identifiable on the streets and the risks of not being able to wear what the health profession would say is a really important tool. I mean, how do you and how do your constituents weigh that?

BATCH: Some people say that we're fear mongering. And what I would tell you is that for someone who's been immunocompromised in the past and had to wear masks, and my children and my husband wear masks to protect me, you know, I'm not fear mongering. It's a genuine concern, right? Somebody can actually die and get very ill if they are not able to protect themselves, if they're immunocompromised, etc. This is actually a bipartisan concern that we've heard from all of our constituents, Republican and Democrat alike. And that is because what I do know is that while some laws do discriminate, sickness does not, illness does not, cancer does not. Right? So you're going to get affected one way or the other. And what we're hearing are from veterans and from a lot of individuals who are kidney transplant patients and other organ transplant patients that constantly have to be on immunosuppressants. And they're just really worried. I think the challenge is trying to actually weigh that with public safety. And I think that's what we were able to do with this bill, with the amendments that we filed. So I do agree law enforcement should be able to identify who is there and who they are. But then once you are able to figure out that you can identify who I am, you should have no problem with me wearing a mask.

START HERE: Republicans have been emphatic that this would not apply to somebody who's clearly just walking around doing their thing. Is there a concern, I guess, that once it's at the discretion of the police officer, like, we've seen that police officers will have very different ideas of who's suspicious based on all the stuff besides the mask that they're wearing, like the color of their skin. Is that is that a concern?

BATCH: Yeah, that's definitely something that has been brought up with a disproportionate impact of individuals who are wearing masks, and disproportionately people of color in North Carolina ended up being harmed by COVID, much more so, and died and became sicker, etc. And so there are a lot of individuals in the community that will still wear a mask. A lot of black churches, you'll see people still wearing masks, but they also disproportionately, if you look at statistics, also get stopped by and questioned by police, disproportionate to, obviously, the population.

START HERE: What do you think happens now as this legislation moves to the House?

BATCH: I do think that what you see, especially in a lot of Southern states, is one bill will get filed and then you'll see multiple pop up across the country, right. So I don't think that in North Carolina, it's going to be unique to us. You'll probably see this other places. But in the House, there have actually been, at least one Republican who said that she would not vote for the bill if it comes up in the House the way that it is, because she is concerned about the language for public health and safety being taken out. And what I will also tell you is one of the other concerns is that the Department of Health and Human Services in North Carolina will no longer, by law or any public health system, be able to actually allow and require masks to actually ever be used for any type of pandemic. And so if we have another COVID, which we will likely have, because that's just the nature of the world, is that we're not going to be able to deal with a public health scare in the way that we were able to do in COVID. Thirty-thousand North Carolinians, you know, died in COVID, and we saved a lot of lives because we had masking protocol.

START HERE: A really interesting story with so many stakeholders here. State Senator Sydney Batch, just outside Raleigh, North Carolina, thank you so much.

BATCH: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

North Carolina lawmaker fights state anti-masking legislation originally appeared on