Facing backlash, fate of NC Republicans’ proposed ban on public masking is unclear

FILE - North Carolina Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, speaks at a news conference, June 12, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C. Daniel was a primary sponsor of a pair of bills addressing voting and election administration in North Carolina that became law Tuesday, Oct. 10, after the General Assembly overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson, File)

By Dylan Rhoney

May 24, 2024

As currently written, House Bill 237 would ban public mask wearing in NC, with no exemptions for those masking for health reasons.

Cat Williams was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that targets the lungs.

Her disease progressed so substantially that she ultimately required a double lung transplant when she was 50.

“My lungs deteriorated to the point where I spent three years on supplemental oxygen, and I was doing nine nebulized medications a day, plus I was doing IV antibiotics for weeks at a time, plus I was doing pulmonary rehab,” the Charlotte resident told Cardinal & Pine. “My whole day was nothing but medical treatments. Then I was able to get listed for the lung transplant at Duke.”

In December 2020, Williams received a double-lung transplant at Duke Hospital in Durham. Three-and-a-half years after her transplant, Williams is cautious about where she goes in public, and always wears a facemask for her health.

“Transplant patients are required by their teams to wear a mask for the first year after transplant. It’s one of the most dangerous times for lung transplant patients because they’re on such high doses of immunosuppressants. Even just a cold has put me back in the hospital for two weeks of IVs to try to prevent secondary infections,” Williams explained. “Any kind of infection can lead to rejection of your organs.”

Waging a culture war at the expense of public health

Due to her immunocompromised condition, the Covid-19 pandemic was especially dangerous for Williams.

“Over 10 patients in my lung transplant program have died from Covid,” she said.

Her family wears masks to protect her—and so do many other families of loved ones who are similarly vulnerable.

But during the Covid-19 pandemic, many on the right took issue with mask mandates issued by state and local governments as part of their efforts to minimize transmission of the deadly virus. At the height of the pandemic, Reopen NC was a group dedicated to opposing business and restaurant closures, and even started a ‘Burn Your Mask Challenge,’ where participants would post videos burning masks to social media.

Fast forward to last week, when the North Carolina Senate voted 30-15 to approve House Bill 237, a bill that would, in part, repeal a Covid-era law allowing masks to be worn in public for health reasons. Masking to hide a person’s identity was banned in North Carolina in 1953 as a response to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and was illegal prior to the public health exemption passed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to reversing that pandemic-era exemption, HB 237 would also enhance penalties for people who wear masks while committing a crime and for people who block roads during a protest.

The bill was proposed in response to recent protests surrounding the ongoing war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas. A number of protesters on college campuses and beyond have worn facemasks during these protests. But as currently written, the Senate’s version of the bill does not provide an explicit exemption for masking for health reasons.

When Democratic State Senators Lisa Grafstein and Sydney Batch of Wake County proposed amendments to the bill to make exceptions for those wearing masks for health reasons, they were voted down.

For Batch, the issue is personal.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and like many other individuals in this state, did not obviously ask to get cancer or become immunocompromised throughout my treatment, and made the decision to protect myself, to wear a mask much longer than I wanted to, and my children, who were in school, and with a whole lot of other children who frankly share lots of germs with one another, wore masks longer than they wanted to, and my husband as well,” she said.

Some advocates have also speculated that if masking were banned without an exemption for health reasons, it could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Senate proposal was so controversial that it proved too much for fellow Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives. State Representative Erin Paré, a Republican who represents parts of southern Wake County posted on X (formerly Twitter), last weekend that she would only support the bill if it included a health exemption.

In a voice vote on Wednesday afternoon, a majority of the state House rejected the Senate version of the bill. The bill will now go to the conference committee, where lawmakers will negotiate revisions—including a possible health exemption.

While concerns over public health were the primary consideration, Grafstein also said she was concerned about the masking ban potentially impacting tourism and business in the state.

“We have been getting emails and contacts from people in other states who are raising that concern directly, including folks who work for tech companies, and folks who have big plans to vacation in North Carolina,” she told Cardinal & Pine. “It’s really clear that people are focused on this issue nationally, and understand the implications in North Carolina. So I absolutely am concerned that we are causing some real harm to our economic development and tourism industry.”

An Illinois-based health care provider was among those who expressed opposition to the legislation. According to screenshots obtained by Cardinal & Pine, the provider sent an email to members of the North Carolina Senate last Saturday asking that they reconsider the proposal that leaves out health exemptions for masking. She stated that she is high risk, and would be concerned about being able to safely visit family in North Carolina if the bill were passed.

In response, State Senator Warren Daniel, a Republican representing Burke, McDowell, and parts of Buncombe County, replied all to the email and wrote that he does not visit Illinois because of “their overly restrictive gun laws that make it impossible for law abiding citizens to defend themselves in crime ridden murder zones like Chicago.”

Facing backlash, fate of NC Republicans’ proposed ban on public masking is unclear

Senator Warren Daniel (R-Burke) response to an Illinois healthcare provider who expressed concern about HB 237

While Chicago, like much of America, has a serious problem with gun violence, so does North Carolina—and the problem is worse in especially rural communities like Daniel’s. From 2016 to 2020, gun deaths were 76% higher in the state’s rural areas compared to urban areas, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress.

According to WRAL News, Daniel also responded in a similar fashion to a concerned email from a New Jersey woman, who sent an email to every member of the State Senate saying she would tell all of her friends and family to stay away from North Carolina if HB 237 became law.

In response, Daniel wrote back: “Nobody vacations in New Jersey.” He also told a self-identified disabled woman who emailed to express concern that she was engaging in “hysteria.”

Cardinal & Pine reached out to Sen. Daniel via email to see if he stood by his remarks to the Illinois-based health provider or if he supported adding an exception to the law that would protect those who wear masks for health reasons. In response, Daniel ignored those questions and instead reiterated his point about the “soft on crime policies of the Illinois legislature,” and shared a response he sent to a constituent who had reached out to express concerns about HB 237.

In that response, he claimed the debate over HB 237 had been plagued by “misinformation” to “scare people for political purposes.” Daniel said that there were no known instances of anyone ever being criminally prosecuted for wearing a mask for medical reasons prior to the Covid-era law, and claimed that the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sent him a memo stating that the wearing of a mask for health reasons would be not a criminal act under the proposed bill.

While DHHS did send lawmakers a memo including a legal interpretation that wearing a mask for public health or safety is not a crime under the bill , Daniel’s email only told part of the story. Cardinal & Pine obtained a copy of the memo, in which the agency expresses concern that HB 237 could cause confusion among the general public, result in harassment of people wearing masks for medical reasons, and potentially result in people choosing not to mask when necessary for their own health or others.

The agency also notes that it is “concerned about the disproportionate negative effect this may have on our minority communities,” citing the more frequent mask wearing among Black, Latino, and Native American North Carolinians, particularly in rural communities.

“For these reasons, DHHS recommends not repealing the existing physical health and safety exception,” the memo reads.

Daniel did note in his email to the constituent that the final version of the bill will likely include a health exemption—but did not clarify to them or Cardinal & Pine if he would support such an exemption.

“I do believe that before its final passage, HB 237 will most likely be clarified so that political groups can’t misconstrue the bill and scare our citizens for fundraising purposes and political gain,” he wrote.

The merits of HB 237

Batch of Wake County told Cardinal & Pine that she believes there is a valid reason for law enforcement to be able to identify people at protests if issues arise.

“I do think there is legitimate reason to say that law enforcement need to identify people who are bad actors in what is otherwise a peaceful protest. I think that is a very valid concern,” she explained.

But Batch wonders why this issue is being raised now, and not in the past when groups such as the KKK and the Proud Boys have organized in public with their faces fully concealed.

“They should have been focusing on this bill in 2019, when the Rockingham County KKK went to the Orange County Courthouse and were protesting outside the courthouse in their Klan robes and hoods,” she said. “I wish they were worried when in New Hanover County in 2023, last year, during a school board meeting that the Proud Boys came into that meeting, disrupted it, and were completely and fully clothed with their black and yellow garb on their faces in which you could not even see any of their skin.”

Batch believes the legislature can easily clarify the concerns that many have about the bill—which at least some Republicans in the state House appear willing to do.

A modification to allow masking for health reasons would be common sense to Williams.

“Why would you criminalize 700,000 immunosuppressed North Carolinians, and also the thousands of their loved ones who want to protect them, or people who simply want to protect their own health?” she asked.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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