North Carolina's restrictions on public mask-wearing are now law after some key revisions


RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s contentious restrictions on public mask-wearing became law on Thursday after GOP lawmakers successfully overrode a veto by the state’s Democratic governor.

The Senate gave its final stamp of approval in a 30-14 override vote along party lines. The state House initiated the process Wednesday when it voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto during a lengthy session that lasted well into the night.

The ban joins a list of more than 20 gubernatorial vetoes the GOP-dominated North Carolina General Assembly has overridden in the past year. Republicans hold narrow supermajorities in both chambers.

The law, most of which goes into effect immediately, contains different language from the bill that lawmakers first introduced this session. The original proposal had removed a 2020 bipartisan regulation put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed masking for health reasons, prompting pushback from the public and some Democratic legislators. The lawmakers restored a medical exemption.

The law allows people to wear medical or surgical-grade masks in public to prevent the spread of illness. Law enforcement and property owners can ask people to temporarily remove those masks to verify their identity.

The measure also increases the severity of punishment for crimes committed while wearing a mask, and raises penalties for protesters who purposefully block traffic. The latter provision is scheduled to go into effect Dec. 1.

An unrelated provision on campaign finance was tacked on to the bill during negotiations. The law allows federally registered committees to donate money to state political parties by tapping pots of money that include unlimited contributions from individuals.

Multiple times during the bill’s pathway through the legislature, GOP lawmakers said it was, in part, a response to widespread protests on college campuses against the war in Gaza.

“It’s about time that the craziness is … at least slowed down, if not put to a stop,” one of the bill’s supporters, Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, said last month.

More than 30 people were detained at an encampment set up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to protest the war in Gaza. Many of the demonstrators wore masks.

Earlier this year, pro-Palestinian protesters blocked roads in Raleigh and Durham.

Opposition to the measure initially centered on the removal of the health exemption, which Democratic lawmakers and other opponents said could harm immunocompromised people.

“You’re making careful people into criminals with this bill,” Mecklenburg County Democrat Sen. Natasha Marcus said in May.

Those concerns were largely ignored, however, until Rep. Erin Pare, Wake County’s only Republican General Assembly member, announced on X that she wouldn’t vote for the bill if a health exemption wasn’t included. The legislation’s passage skidded to a halt, prompting GOP legislators to add a health exemption.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said the bill stifles protesters’ free speech.

Now, most Democratic lawmakers are concerned about the election finance provision, which they said would lead to a lack of transparency in elections. Cooper cited the same provision as his main reason for vetoing the legislation.

General statutes on masking date back to 1953, and were largely aimed at curbing Ku Klux Klan activity in North Carolina, according to David Cunningham, a Washington University at St. Louis sociology professor who wrote a book on the subject. The section of state laws that includes masking restrictions is titled “Prohibited Secret Societies and Activities.”

In addition to the health exception, the law also exempts masks worn with holiday costumes, in theatrical productions or on jobs where they are used to keep workers safe.

New York is considering a ban that Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said would be a way to combat antisemitic acts by masked individuals. The measure would include exemptions for health and religious reasons. As in North Carolina, civil liberties groups in the state have expressed concerns about how the ban would affect free speech.

In Ohio last month, Attorney General Dave Yost cited the state’s existing mask restrictions when warning student protesters that he could charge them with felonies for wearing them.

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This story has been edited to clarify that the provision of the law involving demonstrators who block roadways is scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 1.



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