North Carolina bill to stop protesters from using masks to hide identities advances without health exemption

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are pushing forward with their plan to repeal a pandemic-era law that allowed the wearing of masks in public for health reasons, a move spurred by anti-Israel demonstrations that have included masked protesters camped out on college campuses.The legislation – House Bill 237 – cleared the state’s Senate on Wednesday in a 30-15 vote along party lines despite several attempts by state Senate Democrats to change the bill. The bill, which would raise penalties for someone who wears a mask while committing a crime, including arrested protesters, could still be altered as it heads back to the House.Opponents of the bill say it risks the health of those masking for safety reasons. Those backing the legislation say it is a needed response to the protests, including those at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that escalated to police clashes and arrests. The bill also further criminalizes the blockage of roads or emergency vehicles for a protest, which has occurred during anti-Israel demonstrations in Raleigh and Durham.”It’s about time that the craziness is put, at least slowed down, if not put to a stop,” Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, who presented the bill, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.NORTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN CONGRESSIONAL RUNOFF SHOWS TRUMP’S SWAY IN GOP STATE POLITICS”There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what this bill does and how the law operates, and it’s no wonder that so many folks are scared,” Newton added, according to NC Newsline, questioning the motivations of those against the legislation. “I think some of us are wondering what the real motivations are of folks on the other side of the House, scaring the bejesus out of everybody and making them feel like if they have a need at times to wear masks because they’re immunocompromised somehow, they’re going to get arrested.”Most of the pushback against the bill has centered around its removal of health and safety exemptions for wearing a mask in public. The health exemption was added at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic along largely bipartisan lines. This strikethrough would return public masking rules to their pre-pandemic form, which were created in 1953 to address a different issue: limiting Ku Klux Klan activity in North Carolina, the Associated Press reported, citing a 2012 book by Washington University in St. Louis sociology professor David Cunningham.Democratic lawmakers repeated their unease about how removing protections for people who choose to mask for their health could put immunocompromised North Carolinians at risk of breaking the law. Legislative staff said during a Tuesday committee that masking for health purposes would violate the law.”You’re making careful people into criminals with this bill,” Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County said on the Senate floor. “It’s a bad law.””Is it really that you find masked chemo patients that threatening? Something about them makes you really angry?” Marcus added, according to WRAL. “Or is this, more likely, a desire to score some political points with the anti-mask crowd during an election year, at the expense of vulnerable people?”Simone Hetherington, an immunocompromised person who spoke during Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee, said masking helps her protect herself from illnesses and fears the law would prevent that practice.”We live in different times and I do receive harassment,” Hetherington said about her mask wearing. “It only takes one bad actor.”But Republican legislators continued to express doubt that someone would get in legal trouble for masking because of health concerns, saying law enforcement and prosecutors would use discretion on whether to charge someone. Newton said the bill focuses on criminalizing masks only for the purpose of concealing one’s identity.NORTH CAROLINA GOP ELECTS TRUMP-ENDORSED EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AS ITS NEXT CHAIRMAN”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 keep the health exemption and exclude hate groups from masking, but Senate Republicans used a procedural mechanism to block them without going up for 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, according to the AP. Robeson County Republican Sen. Danny Britt also said during an earlier committee that he anticipated “some tweaking.” House Rules Committee Chairman Destin Hall, a Caldwell County House Republican, told reporters before the Senate vote that the House planned to “take a look at it” but members wanted to clamp down on people who wear masks while committing crimes.The masking bill will likely move through a few committees before hitting the House floor, which could take one or two weeks, Hall said.The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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