North Carolina lawmakers attempted in the early hours of Friday morning to undermine the Democratic governor’s announcement that face coverings would be required in public to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Since the 1950s, North Carolina has banned mask-wearing in public, a law aimed at members of the Ku Klux Klan. That law ran up against guidelines to keep people safe from the coronavirus, and earlier this year, the state voted to exempt citizens from the law until Aug. 1. But when Democratic lawmakers attempted to extend that exemption, Republicans blocked the effort at around 2 a.m., despite an increased number of cases in the state.
Democrats say that North Carolina Republicans are invoking the law in an effort to undermine Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s face mask mandate, set to go into effect on Friday.
“They are totally out of touch with the problems facing their state, engaged in needless partisan battles while their constituents are looking for real leadership during this crisis,” Jessica Post, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee president, said in a statement on Friday.
Republicans insisted they weren’t trying to force people to forgo masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus, but rather want to avoid them being mandated.
“We’re trying to work out that middle ground to where individuals can feel free to wear masks and can feel free of penalties and of being forced to wear masks,” Republican state Sen. Ralph Hise said at 3 a.m. Friday.
If the exemption expires on Aug. 1, though, it would make mask-wearing illegal for people attempting to keep themselves safe from the virus, including the elderly, immunocompromised people, and Black people who are at both a higher risk of contracting it and also of being targeted by law enforcement.
Face masks have become an increasingly politicized issue, despite being recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and despite overwhelming (and nonpartisan) consensus that wearing a mask is the right call. One survey showed that nearly 80% of Americans said they worry that other people’s failure to use masks and practice social distancing would worsen the spread of the coronavirus ― an opinion held by 64% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats surveyed.
Still, lawmakers across the country who have instituted face mask mandates have encountered extreme hostility. A lawmaker in Arizona came under fire this week for repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” ― the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner, two Black men killed by police ― at an anti-face mask rally in Scottsdale. In an off-the-rails public forum in Palm Beach County, Florida, residents told commissioners that they would be “punished by God” and are “obeying the devil’s laws” for requiring face masks. In Orange County, California, anti-mask protesters interrupted a press conference about the importance of wearing face coverings.
In North Carolina, the KKK law is just the latest attempt to undermine public health precautions in the state. On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers tried and failed to garner enough support in the General Assembly to reopen bars and gyms. On Thursday, gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Gov. Dan Forest (R) announced plans to sue Cooper over executive orders meant to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
The editorial board of the Raleigh-based News & Observer called Forest’s letter to Cooper “a 60-yard Hail Mary with a 30-yard arm.” Cooper, whose handling of the virus has garnered overwhelming support in the state, defended himself against GOP criticism.
“Tying the hands of public health officials in times of pandemic is dangerous, especially when case counts and hospitalizations are rising,” he said on Wednesday.
“State and local officials must be able to take swift action during the COVID-19 emergency to prevent a surge of patients from overwhelming hospitals and endangering the lives of North Carolinians.”