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NC Senate Republicans want to restrict masks at protests

A pro-Palestinian student rally near the UNC Chapel Hill campus on May 3, 2024, where two students hold a sign that says "Cops off campus."
Brianna Atkinson
A pro-Palestinian student rally near the UNC Chapel Hill campus, where two students hold a sign that says "Cops off campus."

Republicans in the state Senate want to crack down on recent protests by restricting the use of masks in public. The new bill also would create a felony offense for blocking traffic.

The bill was introduced in a Senate committee Tuesday with the title "Unmasking Mobs and Criminals." It comes amid pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses where some of the protesters are wearing face masks or blocking streets.

The legislation would repeal a law passed during the COVID-19 pandemic that allows for masks in public for health and safety reasons. That exemption was added to a 1953 ban on face masks passed in response to Ku Klux Klan activity.

The 1953 law applies the ban to "any mask, hood or device whereby the person, face or voice is disguised so as to conceal the identity of the wearer." Exceptions include safety masks related to someone's occupation or trade, holiday costumes and gas masks for civil defense drills.

"It also creates an enhancement of punishment if the defendant, the accused, wears a mask to conceal their identity during the commission of another crime," said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, who presented the bill in committee.

Newton didn't mention the recent campus protests in his presentation, but fellow Republican Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, called for the mask law to be changed in a social media post. Perry made the comment while sharing a video that showed protesters — some of them wearing face masks — throwing water bottles at police officers during a UNC-Chapel Hill protest last week.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill at Tuesday's committee hearing. While the latest Centers for Disease Control guidance on COVID-19 no longer recommends the use of face masks in most settings, it does "encourage" people who are recovering from COVID or another respiratory illness to wear a mask for five days after resuming normal activities.

Even outside of protests, face masks remain a common sight on college campuses, often more so than in other public settings.

While it's currently a misdemeanor to block traffic, the bill would impose Class H felony penalties — which carry penalties of up to two years in prison — on repeat offenders who block traffic as part of a protest. First-time offenses would come with a higher level of misdemeanor charge.

Another provision of the bill would limit the governor's powers to create restrictions in emergencies. According to the bill's summary, "any emergency orders or regulations could not distinguish between religious institutions and other entities in a way that imposes additional limitations on religious institutions." Newton said that provision is "not related to masks."

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the bill at a future meeting.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.