North Carolina’s restrictions on wearing masks in public are now law after some key revisions

North Carolina’s controversial restrictions on wearing masks in public are now law after Senate Republicans vote to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s controversial restrictions on wearing masks in public became law Thursday after Republican lawmakers successfully overrode a veto by the state’s Democratic governor.

The Senate gave final approval by a vote of 30 to 14, along party lines. The state House of Representatives began the process Wednesday by voting to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto during a lengthy session that lasted late into the night.

The ban joins a list of more than 20 gubernatorial vetoes that the GOP-dominated North Carolina General Assembly has overridden in the past year. Republicans hold slim majorities in both chambers.

The law, most of which takes effect immediately, contains different language than the bill lawmakers first introduced this session. The original proposal eliminated a 2020 bipartisan rule put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed masks to be worn for health reasons, which drew opposition from the public and some Democratic lawmakers. Lawmakers reinstated a medical exemption.


The law allows people to wear medical or surgical masks in public to prevent the spread of disease. Law enforcement and property owners can ask people to temporarily remove these masks to verify their identity.

The measure also strengthens the severity of penalties for crimes committed while wearing a mask and increases penalties for demonstrators who voluntarily block traffic. This latter provision should come into force on December 1.

An unrelated provision related to campaign finance was added to the bill during negotiations. The law allows federally registered committees to donate money to state political parties from funds that include unlimited contributions from individuals.


At various times during the bill’s journey through the legislature, Republican lawmakers have said it was, in part, a response to widespread protests on college campuses against the war in Gaza.

“It’s time for this madness to be…at least slowed down, if not stopped,” one of the bill’s supporters, Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, said last month.

More than 30 people were arrested at an encampment set up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to protest the war in Gaza. Many protesters wore masks.

Earlier this year, pro-Palestinian protesters blocked roads in Raleigh and Durham.


Opposition to the measure initially focused on eliminating the health exemption, which Democratic lawmakers and other opponents said could harm people with compromised immune systems.

“With this bill, you are turning prudent people into criminals,” Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus said in May.

Those concerns, however, were largely ignored until Rep. Erin Pare, the only Republican member of the Wake County General Assembly, announced on the X that she would not vote for the bill unless a health exemption was included. Passage of the legislation stalled, prompting Republican lawmakers to add a health exemption.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have said the bill stifles protesters’ free speech.

Most Democratic lawmakers are now concerned about the election finance provision, which they say would lead to a lack of transparency in elections. Cooper cited that same provision as the main reason he vetoed the legislation.


General masking laws date back to 1953 and were largely aimed at curbing Ku Klux Klan activity in North Carolina, according to David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote a book on the subject. The section of state laws that includes masking restrictions is titled “Prohibited Secret Societies and Activities.”

In addition to the health exception, the law also exempts masks worn with holiday costumes, in theater productions or in workplaces where they are used to keep workers safe.


New York is considering a ban that Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said would be a way to combat anti-Semitic acts committed by masked individuals. The measure would include exemptions for health and religious reasons. As in North Carolina, civil liberties groups in the state have expressed concerns about the ban’s impact on free speech.

Last month in Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost cited existing mask restrictions in the state when he warned student protesters that he could charge them with crimes if they wore them.


This article has been amended to clarify that the provisions of the law involving protesters blocking roads are due to come into force on December 1.

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