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North Carolina lawmakers push bill banning wearing masks in public, citing crime

RALEIGH, North Carolina — Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are moving forward with plans to repeal a pandemic-era law that allowed the wearing of masks in public for health reasons, a move prompted in part by protests against the war in Gaza that saw Masked protesters camp out on college campuses.

The bill was approved by the Senate on Wednesday in a 30-15 vote 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. But 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 escalated into clashes with police and arrests. The bill also criminalizes blocking roads or emergency vehicles during a protest, which happened during pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Raleigh and Durham.

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

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, according to a 2012 book by the sociology professor of Washington University in St. Louis, David Cunningham. .

Since the pandemic, masks have become a partisan flashpoint — and the debate in the Senate over whether the law would make it illegal to wear a mask for health purposes has been no different.

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

Simone Hetherington, an immunocompromised person who spoke before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, said wearing a mask is one of the only ways she can protect herself from illness and fears the law could prevent this. practical.

“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 ‘charge someone. Newton said the bill focuses on criminalizing masks solely for the purpose of concealing a person’s identity.

“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.

Future changes to the bill could be a possibility, but it would ultimately be up to the House, Newton told reporters after the vote. 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.

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

ABC News

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