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NC Republicans Are Trying To Pass Another Bill Taking Away Your Rights – This Time Banning All Masks in Public

Source: Newsweek, NC Health News, WRAL

Republicans in the North Carolina Senate have once again passed a bill that will take away North Carolinians’ freedoms, this time passing a ban on anyone wearing masks in public – even for health reasons.

Republican State Sen. Buck Newton sponsored the bill. He explained that the bill is necessary because he believes protesters are abusing pandemic-era norms to wear masks so that they can hide their identities while protesting – an action protected by the First Amendment and one in which you would hope an attorney, like Newton, would be familiar with.

Newton claimed that the mask ban would help police identify protesters but that he is confident police will use “common sense” when enforcing the law because “We didn’t see granny getting arrested in the Walmart, pre-COVID,” he told reporters.

According to Newsweek, anti-mask laws were enacted in several states, North Carolina included, back in the 1950s as a response to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Some of those bans have technically been on the books since then. In some states, exceptions were expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic to include people wearing masks for health reasons. North Carolina was one of those states, but Newton’s bill would repeal that exception.

“This bill is clearly in response to the recent protests on college campuses against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza,” Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of the grassroots group NC for the People Action, told NC Newsline. “Thus, it is another anti-protest bill.”

Newton said the purpose of the law is to “deal with organizations and individuals who are intent on breaking the law and hiding their identity.” He called the bill, HB 237, “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals.”

One can only assume that he is including right-wing extremist hate organizations like the Proud Boys (who often wear full face coverings when protesting or harassing people at drag brunches or town council meetings) in his definition of “organizations and individuals who are intent on breaking the law and hiding their identity.”

Newton’s legislation is much further-reaching than necessary if his goal is to outlaw masks at protests. The legislation bans masks for everyone – that includes people like cancer patients or others who are immunocompromised, as well as anyone who is sick and wants to protect others from catching their illness.

North Carolina Democrats have cited this bill as another example of Republican overreach.

State Sen. Sydney Batch, a cancer survivor, said that having people wear masks around her was critical when she was immunocompromised during medical treatment.

“I don’t think that it’s stoking the fears of individuals who walk through this world compromised through no fault of their own,” Batch said. “My issue is, we are removing the specific section that gave people who are immunocompromised or people who were sick and just care about the community — someone walking around with tuberculosis who wants to wear masks to protect everybody else —  is no longer able to do that based on this bill.”

Batch and fellow Wake County Democrat, Sen. Lisa Grafstein, suggested that the bill be amended to protect people wearing masks for health reasons.

“We talk a lot about freedoms in this chamber, I hear it all the time,” Batch said. “I should have the freedom, my children should have the freedom and my husband should have the freedom to wear a mask in order to protect and save my life without fear of being arrested and charged with a class one misdemeanor, which is exactly what this bill would do.”

Natasha Marcus, another Democratic state senator, said the bill was nothing more than “a desire to score some political points with the anti-mask crowd during an election year, at the expense of vulnerable people.”

Democrats in the North Carolina legislature aren’t the only ones opposed to Newton’s bill.

Duke University infectious disease specialist Cameron Wolfe told NC Health News that, “Politicizing what is fundamentally a health issue for a cheap shot at the Israel-Gaza debate is unconscionable.”

Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who served during the Trump administration, criticized the proposal in a thread on Twitter. His wife has been fighting cancer for years.

“As a physician I am deeply concerned about North Carolina’s potential total ban on mask-wearing. It’s disturbing to think immunocompromised and cancer patients could be deemed criminals for following medical advice aimed at safeguarding their health,” he wrote in one post.

Another infectious disease specialist, UNC Health’s David Wohl, also expressed concern.

“It’s obviously outrageous and also not a very well-thought-out approach,” he said. “This is really smacking of political point-making. People cover their faces for all sorts of reasons.”

Not only is Newton’s bill a bad idea, it’s also potentially illegal.

Portions of the bill would violate free speech protections under the First Amendment — particularly if, when applied, they target only protesters, Liz Barber, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of North Carolina told WRAL. The bill could be particularly chilling to people with disabilities

“Taking away their ability to mask safely, I think, would also then take away their ability to safely assemble,” she said.

Disability rights advocates say the legislation could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It certainly does affect the ability of a person with a disability to engage in their community, which is a right guaranteed by federal law,” said Tara Muller, a policy lawyer for Disability Rights North Carolina. “So to the extent that people with disabilities have the right to assemble, then yes, it does violate their rights.”

According to WRAL, a federal judge ruled in 2021 that a ban on school masking requirements in Texas hindered the ability of school districts there to comply with the ADA because a mask ban would deny some students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in in-person classes – unless they wanted to attend school with unmasked classmates.

Despite concerns expressed by Democrats, doctors, free speech advocates, disability rights advocates and others, the bill passed along party lines – 30 to 15 – with every Republican voting in favor and every Democrat voting against.

Although the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill, the House, in a relatively rare bipartisan move, rejected Senate amendments to the legislation, sending it back to a conference committee for potential changes.

The current masking laws will remain in effect until, or if, amended legislation is introduced and passed.

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