Long before the pandemic hit American shores, there had been debates over mask-wearing policy. More than a dozen states have laws prohibiting people from covering their faces in public, most of which are ordinances passed to deter the Ku Klux Klan.
These laws have been suspended, revoked or not enforced as mask wearing in many states has become a public health requirement.
But as the pandemic recedes in the country and emergency orders related to the pandemic expire, the question of what to do with old mask laws resurfaces.
When the Virginia coronavirus state of emergency expires on June 30, a 1950 mask ban will come back into effect.
The anti-KKK law, which provided an exemption for declaring a public health emergency, prohibits “anyone over the age of 16, with the intention of concealing their identity, from wearing a mask, hood or the like. other device by which part of the face is hidden or covered so as to conceal the identity of the wearer.
Alena Yarmosky, press secretary to Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam, said in an email that Northam is exploring ways to ensure the law does not affect people who wish to continue wearing masks for health reasons .
âGov. Northam is committed to ensuring that people who are not vaccinated and / or who are uncomfortable going without a mask always have the option of wearing one, âYarmosky said. She did not respond to questions on whether Northam would pursue legislative change or executive action.
Anti-mask laws have been invoked over the years in a variety of ways. A federal appeals court ruled in 2004 that the New York Police Department was justified in denying an outdoor assembly permit to an organization called the Church of American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The permit was refused on the grounds that the participants would violate the state’s anti-mask law. In 2011, NYPD agents also arrested some Occupy Wall Street protesters and charged them with wearing masks.
The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld the use of that state’s mask ban in 1996 in a case involving an angry parent who attended a school board meeting wearing a devil mask to protest the mascot from school devil.
And in 2018, Alabama police officers used anti-mask law to arrest a man after leading a protest against a shooting involving an officer of an African American.
A California Law Review article published in November listed 18 states that had anti-mask laws predating the pandemic.
The New York Act of 1845, the oldest anti-mask law in the country, was repealed in May 2020. The law, which made an exception for “a masquerade or similar entertainment”, was passed in an uprising armed with cash-strapped wheat farmers. who disguised themselves as Native Americans during protests against feudal rent agreements.
Alabama’s anti-mask law, which dates back to 1949 and was sparked by outrage over a dawn raid of three dozen Klan members at an interracial Girl Scout camp, prohibits a masked person from loitering in a public place. He made exceptions for masked balls, parades and religious, educational or historical âpresentationsâ.
In April 2020, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued an opinion that the law’s description of “being masked” would not include wearing a medical mask that only covers the nose and the mouth.
Rob Kahn, a professor of law at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis and an expert on anti-mask laws, believes many of these laws are obsolete. But repealing them might have been easier before the pandemic, he said, before the masks became a political lightning rod.
Kahn said he was not aware of any cases of coronavirus anti-masks advocating keeping the old anti-mask laws. But he speculated that keeping them might be popular with the large number of voters who now see the masks as symbols of the government’s overbreadth.
“I really think there will continue to be a difference of opinion, a difference over the masks,” Kahn said. “But I hope that the conflicts that arise will be resolved peacefully.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.