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Masks May Be Banned From The State Of North Carolina

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In North Carolina, Republican legislators are advancing a bill to repeal a pandemic-era law that permitted public mask-wearing for health reasons. This move is partly a reaction to protests against the Gaza war, where some demonstrators have been wearing masks while camping on college campuses.

The state Senate passed the bill on Wednesday with a 30-15 vote along party lines, despite efforts by Senate Democrats to amend it. The bill proposes increasing penalties for wearing masks while committing crimes, including during protests, and will now return to the House for further consideration, where it could still be modified.

Critics argue that the bill endangers the health of individuals who wear masks for safety reasons. Supporters, however, believe the legislation is necessary to address demonstrations, such as those at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which have led to police confrontations and arrests. The bill also aims to further criminalize obstructing roads or emergency vehicles during protests, a tactic seen in recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Raleigh and Durham.

“It’s about time that the craziness is put, at least slowed down, if not put to a stop,” said Senator Buck Newton, a Republican from Wilson County, who introduced the bill.

Much of the opposition focuses on the removal of health and safety exemptions for public mask-wearing. These exemptions were initially introduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic with broad bipartisan support.

Repealing these exemptions would revert public mask rules to their pre-pandemic state, established in 1953 to curb Ku Klux Klan activities in North Carolina, as detailed in a 2012 book by sociology professor David Cunningham of Washington University in St. Louis.

Since the pandemic, mask-wearing has become a contentious issue, and the Senate debate reflected this polarization. Democratic lawmakers voiced concerns that removing protections for health-related mask-wearing could criminalize immunocompromised individuals. Legislative staff confirmed during a Tuesday committee meeting that masking for health reasons would indeed violate the proposed law.

“You’re making careful people into criminals with this bill,” said Democratic Senator Natasha Marcus from Mecklenburg County. “It’s a bad law.”

Simone Hetherington, an immunocompromised individual, testified during Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee, emphasizing that masking is essential for her health and expressing fear that the new law would prevent her from protecting herself.

“We live in different times and I do receive harassment,” Hetherington said regarding her mask-wearing. “It only takes one bad actor.”

However, Republican lawmakers dismissed concerns about potential legal trouble for those masking for health reasons, arguing that law enforcement and prosecutors would exercise discretion. Newton insisted the bill targets those using masks to conceal their identities for criminal activities.

“I smell politics on the other side of the aisle when they’re scaring people to death about a bill that is only going to criminalize people who are trying to hide their identity so they can do something wrong,” Newton said.

Three Senate Democrats proposed amendments to maintain the health exemption and exclude hate groups from the masking ban, but Senate Republicans used a procedural tactic to block these amendments without a vote.

Future modifications to the bill remain possible, pending the House’s review. Newton mentioned that changes could occur, and Senator Danny Britt, a Republican from Robeson County, suggested during an earlier committee meeting that some adjustments were anticipated.

House Rules Committee Chairman Destin Hall, a Republican from Caldwell County, indicated that the House would examine the bill thoroughly but emphasized the intent to crack down on individuals wearing masks while committing crimes.

The bill is expected to pass through several House committees before reaching the House floor, a process that could take one or two weeks.

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