North Carolina lawmaker fights state’s anti-mask legislation

There is currently a bill moving through the North Carolina General Assembly, the official name of which is House Bill 237, also known as the “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” bill.

Supporters say the purpose of the bill is to curb the wearing of face masks in public to conceal the identity of a suspected criminal during the commission of a crime. To do so, it would effectively repeal “from certain laws” a pandemic-era exemption that allowed masks to be worn in public for health reasons, and violators would be subject to arrest.

North Carolina’s Republican-majority Senate passed the legislation Wednesday by a 30-15 vote, returning it for consideration to the Republican-majority state House, where it could still be amended.

Sydney Batch, a Democratic lawmaker in the North Carolina Senate since 2021, said legislation banning the wearing of masks in public in North Carolina dates back to the 1950s, when it was enacted to address the practice of the Ku Klux Klan. of wearing hoods. She worries that the removal of the 2020 update, enacted to ensure compliance with mask rules, could leave people subject to prosecution if they continue to wear masks in public to protect their health. Batch is also a cancer survivor and said she and her family wore masks to protect her when she was immunocompromised during her treatment.

Senator Batch spoke with “Start Here” on Tuesday about the “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” bill.

START HERE: Senator Batch, thank you for joining us. This bill, passed in the Senate last week, is moving to the House right now and will be considered this week. Can you describe what it contains?

BATCH: Thanks for having me. So this bill passed the Senate last week. It was quickly presented to our Judiciary Committee and then moved to the floor for a vote. And what the bill basically does is it states that if you are wearing a mask and for any reason other than a couple of exceptions (Halloween, if you are part of a secret society, etc.), then you would be breaking the law and It would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Before 2020, this was the law of the land. But in 2020, during COVID, we passed a bill that had a public health exception. And so you could use it for your own public health and safety. Well, my colleagues have removed that provision. And during last week’s debate, we talked about adding it back and tabled amendments. Unfortunately, that failed. And that’s how the bill was passed. So you no longer have the health exemption. And we know that if it passes, the House will be in a position where the governor of our state will have to veto it. And unfortunately, it can be overturned because we have a supermajority in both chambers.

START HERE: And you said this was almost like the law of the land before. Because? What was the reason for this and why its return?

BATCH: My Republican colleagues have talked about the fact that this was implemented in 1954, I believe, and it was to address the Ku Klux Klan regarding the wearing of hoods during the 1950s. However, we changed it in 2020. That’s why , several of my Republican colleagues continue to say that there has been an increase in protests where people have abused that mask provision. And I don’t really disagree with them in that sense, in that, you know, there are some bad actors who will come to a protest and try to disguise their face. But that doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe we can do difficult things and that’s what we were elected to do. And so when we as Democrats (myself and another colleague, Senator Grafstein) provided intentional language regarding wearing a mask and requirements that would mean you could wear it if you were immunocompromised, if you wanted to protect someone in your home, etc. , you could remove your mask if authorities ask you to do so to identify your face, and then you could still wear it. But both amendments were rejected. So I don’t understand why there wasn’t a reasonable compromise because I think law enforcement needs to do its job and we also need to protect the immunocompromised.

START HERE: That seems to be what this is all about, right? You’re weighing risks and benefits, right? Like the risks of having fewer identifiable people on the streets and the risks of not being able to use what the health profession would say is a really important tool. I mean, how do you and your constituents weigh this?

BATCH: Some people say we’re fearmongering. And what I would tell you is that for someone who has been immunocompromised in the past and had to wear masks, and my kids and my husband wear masks to protect me, you know, I’m not an alarmist. It’s a genuine concern, right? In fact, someone can die and become seriously ill if they cannot protect themselves, if they are immunocompromised, etc. This is actually a bipartisan concern that we have heard from all of our constituents, both Republicans and Democrats. And that’s because what I do know is that while some laws discriminate, diseases, illnesses, and cancer do not. Good? Then you will be affected in one way or another. And what we hear is coming from veterans and from many people who are kidney transplant patients and other organ transplant patients who constantly have to take immunosuppressants. And they are really worried. I think the challenge is trying to weigh that against public safety. And I think that’s what we were able to do with this bill, with the amendments that we introduced. So I agree that the authorities should be able to identify who is there and who they are. But once you can figure out that you can identify who I am, you should have no problem with me wearing a mask.

START HERE: Republicans have been emphatic that this would not apply to someone who is clearly just out there doing their thing. Is there a concern, I guess, that once it’s at the discretion of the police officer, we’ve seen that police officers will have very different ideas about who is a suspect based on all things other than what mask they’re wearing? like the color of your skin. Is that a concern?

BATCH: Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s been brought up with a disproportionate impact of people wearing masks, and disproportionately people of color in North Carolina ending up being harmed by COVID, much more, and dying and getting sicker, etc. . Because of that, there are many people in the community who will continue to wear a mask. In many black churches you will see people still wearing masks, but also, disproportionately, if you look at the statistics, they are also stopped and questioned by the police, disproportionately, obviously, to the population.

START HERE: What do you think will happen now that this legislation reaches the House?

BATCH: I think what you see, especially in many southern states, is that one bill is introduced and then several bills appear around the country, right? So I don’t think in North Carolina it’s unique to us. You’ll probably see this elsewhere. But in the House there has been at least one Republican who said he would not vote for the bill if it is introduced in the House as is, because he is concerned that the public health and safety language will be removed. And what I will also tell you is that one of the other concerns is that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will no longer be able, by law or by any public health system, to allow or require masks to be worn. for any type of pandemic. So if we have another COVID, which we probably will, because that’s the nature of the world, is that we won’t be able to deal with a public health problem the way we were able to in COVID-19. Thirty thousand North Carolinians, you know, died from COVID and we saved a lot of lives because we had a mask protocol.

START HERE: A really interesting story with so many interested parties here. State Senator Sydney Batch, outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, thank you very much.

BATCH: Thank you very much for inviting me. I really appreciate it.