North Carolina's updated mask bill passes House of Representatives 69-43

Sean Coffey Image
Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Some concerned about bill that limits face masks in public
A lengthy debate in the House ended with a vote in favor of a bill that aims to restrict mask-wearing in public.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill Tuesday that aims to restrict mask wearing in public.

Known as the Unmasking Mobs and Criminals Act, HB 237 is aimed at making it easier to prosecute people trying to hide behind a mask while committing a crime.

This would repeal the pandemic-era exemption that allowed mask-wearing for health reasons.

The House vote took place Tuesday afternoon after a more than 1-hour debate.

The bill does carve out several exceptions to the mask-wearing restrictions, including for "preventing the spread of contagious disease". House Democrats say that language doesn't go far enough in protecting the immunocompromised and those who wear masks for preventative reasons. House Speaker Tim Moore says it's about protecting the public.

"We're trying to find a way to ensure public safety, to protect law-abiding citizens from criminals who would shield their identity and at the same time, protect someone who wants to protect their health," Moore said.

Bill Pushback

Several left-leaning groups, including the NAACP, Emancipate NC, and North Carolina Asian Americans Together, are against the proposed legislation. They are calling it an attack on the rights of North Carolinians.

Outside the General Assembly, there was a morning rally ahead of the House vote.

"I should be able to protect my health," Cheryl Carter, the co-executive director of Democracy in North Carolina, said to the small crowd. "I know that puts me at risk. And that is something that I cannot tolerate. I have been protecting myself since COVID. As you heard, I got it once. It took me seven months to recover."

Some lawmakers initially felt those same concerns.

The bill did pass in the Senate in a 30-15 vote last month but initially failed in the House because it didn't provide enough protections for people with medical conditions.

This prompted a conference committee and changes to HB 237.

The updated version included those exemptions for people with health concerns. Limitations and strong penalties were also added for protesters and those committing crimes while wearing masks.

I am confident that this piece of legislation is designed to make people feel unsafe protesting, to make people feel afraid for protesting
Dawn Blagrove, Emancipate NC

HB 237 also includes a section, added abruptly last week, that changes campaign finance law. Moore said it's an attempt to level the playing field, citing changes during the 2020 elections that Republicans believe benefited large Democratic donors.

"All this bill does is treat the Republican groups and the Democrat groups exactly the same," Moore said.

Others, such as Ann Webb with Common Cause North Carolina, are concerned those changes will reduce transparency.

"When it comes down to it, we're talking about hiding who is controlling the outcomes of elections in North Carolina, with the voters who deserve to know," Webb said.

Republicans last week downplayed the concerns of Democrat lawmakers, saying the reform would level the playing field and is a response to a 2020 State Board of Elections decision that they say benefitted organizations aligned with Democrats.

These opposing groups said this would allow federal political committees and organizations, like Super PACs, to make contributions to parties without fulfilling the reporting requirements.

Some local residents expressed concerns about the effects of HB 237. Renee Nixon is one of the North Carolinians who still opt to wear a mask in public for personal reasons long after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I wear it because it makes me calm. Other people don't have to wear it, and that's fine. But it relaxes me, it keeps my anxiety down," she said.

The Durham native said the bill has her - and others - on edge about what that will mean for their mask-wearing rights.

"I feel like we're being attacked for no reason. Again, we have too much other stuff to focus on to be dealing with them focusing on a mask that's not hurting anybody," Nixon said.

WATCH | Masking bill passes Senate, Dems walk out in campaign finance protest

Senate Republicans passed a compromised version of HB 237, which places more restrictions on wearing a mask in public.

Reactions from both parties

Some Democrat lawmakers said the changes still aren't enough.

I smell politics on the other side of the aisle...
Republican Sen. Buck Newton

"I'm not sure it provides enough protection for people who have health concerns...when they're in public," Democratic Rep. Brandon Lofton said. "And there are a couple of provisions in there, I think, that raised a few questions."

When it was initially presented to the Senate, Republican legislators expressed doubt that someone would get in legal trouble for masking because of health concerns.

"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," Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, who presented the bill, said on the Senate floor.

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