Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Charlotte Observer/Raleigh News and Observer. May 17, 2024.

Editorial: The party of ‘freedom’ wants to ban mask-wearing for health reasons in NC

The party of freedom doesn’t want to let you wear a mask to protect your own health in public.

Republican legislators have proposed a bill that would remove the health and safety exception to North Carolina’s existing ban on mask-wearing in public, which has been in place since the 1950s. That exception was added in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, but lawmakers say that it is no longer needed. Try telling that to immunocompromised people, or the elderly, or anyone else who might want to mask up to protect themselves or others.

GOP Sen. Buck Newton, the bill’s primary sponsor, suggested that those who choose to wear a mask in public for health reasons could still do so despite the law changing, because authorities have “good common sense.”

“This was not a problem pre-COVID,” Newton said in a committee hearing. “We didn’t see Granny getting arrested in the Walmart pre-COVID. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to see that when we pass this legislation, and I think those that are suggesting otherwise are stoking fear.”

The intent of the bill, Newton said, is merely to crack down on those who may wear a mask to hide their identities while committing crimes in public, and it is not intended to punish anyone who wears a mask for the sake of their health.

That argument in itself is the sign of poorly crafted legislation. If lawmakers do not intend to make something illegal, they should not write a law that makes that thing illegal and then expect authorities, businesses and the public to obey some unwritten rule that the law should not be enforced as such. That creates ambiguity and confusion, and leaving it up to authorities to use their “common sense” to determine which mask wearers are potentially criminals and which are simply being conscious of their health opens the door to a whole host of other problems.

The bill is titled “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals,” and it’s likely not a coincidence that it comes after a wave of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses in North Carolina and across the country. Many of those protesters were wearing masks. The bill enhances penalties for those who are wearing a mask while committing a crime. In effect, that could mean that a protester arrested for vandalism or trespassing could receive a harsher punishment simply because they were wearing a mask while protesting.

This is, plain and simple, a ridiculous bill. It should make everyone uncomfortable, regardless of whether or not you personally wish to wear a mask in public. It may be true that this was not a problem before COVID, and nobody was arresting “Granny” or chemo patients for masking up in public. But the exception lawmakers crafted during COVID also hasn’t been a problem, certainly not enough to justify taking away people’s freedom of choice. Or is “freedom” only what Republican lawmakers want it to be?