Repeal of health exemption from NC’s mask ban passes Senate, sending bill to House

The North Carolina Senate voted to repeal a health and safety exception to the state’s longstanding ban on wearing masks in public, and enhance penalties for wearing a mask while committing another crime.

Senators approved the bill, which was introduced as a substitute to existing legislation last week and cleared two committees this week, in a 30-15 vote along party lines Wednesday afternoon.

A key point of contention over the bill has been the provision that removes an exception for health and safety from the law banning mask-wearing in public that dates back to 1953. Republicans have said the pandemic-era exception is no longer necessary, but Democrats have pushed back, arguing that lawmakers should just increase penalties for people who use masks to commit crimes, and leave the health exception alone.

There’s also been strong pushback from critics who say the bill is clearly an “anti-protest” measure that is a response to recent pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses, where masks have been common.

In addition to repealing the health and safety exception, and increasing criminal penalties for those who are found to have worn a mask to hide their identity while committing another crime, the bill also imposes new penalties for participating in demonstrations that are intended to block traffic.

Speaking against the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch said that the bill, as it is currently written, would leave immunocompromised people at risk.

Amendments offered by Batch and two other Democrats, Sen. Lisa Grafstein and Jay Chaudhuri, were rejected by the GOP-controlled chamber.

Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus, who said she, like other lawmakers, had heard from many people concerned about whether they would be able to continue wearing masks to protect themselves, said that Democrats are in favor of cracking down on people who conceal their identities to commit crimes, but also want to “protect the health of the people of North Carolina.”

During a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday morning, GOP senators said that discussions were ongoing about potential changes to the bill once it arrived in the House. The changes would address the concerns raised by Democrats and others that taking out the health exception would make masking for that reason illegal.

Republicans pointed to the fact that for nearly 70 years, masking in public was illegal, but there were no incidents that came to mind of a person ever being arrested or prosecuted for wearing a mask for health reasons. Several people who wear masks because they are immunocompromised or have other medical problems that require them to wear one when in public, addressed committees this week with concerns about what the bill would mean for them.

House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters earlier in the day that he hadn’t read the bill yet, but echoed the argument that GOP senators had made: that the bill isn’t meant to target or penalize people who wear masks to protect their own health or the health of others, but rather, people who are “trying to willfully conceal their identity to engage in some sort of conduct that’s a problem.”

“If someone is going to come out and they’re going to protest, and they’re going to be in a public space out there, they ought to not be able to hide their identity, and I don’t care what cause it is they’re advocating for,” Moore said.

Asked about Proud Boys who have protested in public wearing different kinds of face coverings — an example that was raised earlier in the day during the Senate Rules Committee — Moore said: “I don’t care who it is, anybody who’s going to be out protesting should not be able to conceal their identity, period. I mean that just should not happen, whether it’s right, left, sane, insane — I don’t care.”