North Carolina’s Protest Crackdown Now Includes a Ban on N95s

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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.North Carolina Republicans are pushing legislation that would remove the state’s health exemption to laws banning masks in public, citing protestors’ wearing them in pro-Palestine campus rallies. If the state GOP’s “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” bill passes, North Carolina would become the first in the country to make it illegal to avoid infectious diseases like Covid-19—which people can also get while protesting—by masking in public. The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday in a 30-15 party-line vote. Due to Senate revisions, it will have to pass the Republican-majority state House again. But even if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the law, the Republican-majority state legislature will have the power to override him.
Covid-19 continues to kill people in the United States, with at least 20,000 confirmed deaths linked to Covid infections since the start of 2024, Millions more are developing Long Covid, the risk of which increases with every subsequent infection. Immunocompromised patients are at particular risk of death: besides their underlying conditions, immunocompromising medications can reduce the efficiency of Covid vaccines and boosters. Masks, specifically N95 and KN95s, are very effective in stopping its spread, and wearing one in a crowd can allow immunocompromised people like recent transplant recipients to participate in civic life and political action. Mask-wearing is more effective in stopping transmission in crowds when more people do it. 

“These patients have active reasons to want extra layers of protection,” Dr. Cameron R. Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist with Duke University Health System in North Carolina, told Mother Jones. “If my lung transplant recipient wants to be able to keep him or herself protected in the act of a protest, they must be allowed the freedom to do that.”
Lucky Tran, a science communicator with Columbia University and health equity organizer, said that folks encouraging others to wear masks that protect against the spread of Covid-19 is good community care.
“By providing and encouraging people to wear masks at protests, activists are demonstrating community care and public health leadership, which by contrast, most governments and institutions are failing to do,” Tran said.
Most transplant recipients are advised to wear masks, guidance that predates the Covid pandemic. Research has shown that even the common cold can be dangerous or deadly for transplant recipients. Not being able to wear a mask in public could limit their participation in society—from participating in protest to going to the grocery store. The CDC also reports that getting an infection during chemotherapy for cancer can also lead to hospitalization.
At a hearing on the legislation, Democratic State Sen. Sydney Batch, a cancer survivor, said the bill goes too far: “There are people that are walking around every single day that are immunocompromised…It is meaningful to them. They could die.” 
Dr. Diana Cejas, a University of North Carolina pediatric neurologist who survived cancer and a stroke, told Mother Jones that “it has been an incredibly difficult time to be a North Carolinian who actually cares about public health and safety.” Cejas asserts that it is her “right to protect myself” against Covid by wearing a mask—and her duty to protect the medically complex, vulnerable children she works with every day. 
Cejas is also doubtful of claims from some North Carolina Republican officials that people won’t be arrested for wearing a mask in their daily lives for health concerns. 
“Some of our legislators have made the argument that this ban won’t apply to those of us who mask for medical reasons, but I think that we all know that won’t be true,” Cejas said. “We already face scrutiny and outright harassment at times for the ‘crime’ of trying to protect ourselves from illness, particularly us disabled and chronically ill people of color and those with other marginalized identities.”
North Carolina is not the only state to move to crack down on protestors wearing masks. Earlier this month, Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said that pro-Palestinian student protestors wearing masks could face felony charges under a law that was originally created to go after the Ku Klux Klan. 
Though villainized and potentially criminalized, masks continue to be an effective way to limit the spread of infections. “We would see a lot less disease if masks were accepted as a socially reasonable thing to wear in public for at-risk individuals,” Wolfe said, “or anyone worried about illness.”