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Masks banned amid university protests over war in Gaza

Masks banned amid university protests over war in Gaza


The mask debate has taken an entirely new form in 2024.

Politicians in California, New York and North Carolina, who once championed masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, are now looking to ban them following protests against the war in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators often wear the same type of medical masks used to prevent germs. In part, they’re hoping to hide their identities from online campaigns that have cost them jobs or educational opportunities and even led to death threats. Many organizers have also incorporated masking to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and to make others – particularly those at greater risk of serious illness – feel welcome.

Officials allege some masked protesters have committed antisemitic hate crimes outside of synagogues, museums and on public transit. Face coverings have made it harder for police to identify suspects, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers argue.

But public health officials and people with health concerns argue that masks remain essential tools of self-protection.

Novel coronavirus: Why are people suddenly getting COVID-19 this summer? Insight into the uptick.

Four years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an uptick in cases this summer, ahead of predictable surges in other respiratory illnesses in the coming winter months. Medical-grade masks, such as N95 or KN95 respirators, are an established tool to control COVID-19, in addition to flu and RSV.

Now, there are concerns about how far mask bans could go.

“Bans on the use of masks strongly inhibit one of the options that pubic health has to reduce the impact of pandemics in our population,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told USA TODAY. “Politics, rather than a careful review of the evidence, has had a strong influence on the acceptability of using masks to combat pandemics.”

First Amendment concerns

Mask ban proposals and laws raise an array of civil rights concerns about people’s right to protest anonymously. It also remains to be seen how police could actually enforce bans, differentiating masks used to protect health or express political beliefs, versus those used to carry out a crime.

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said the right to speak anonymously without retaliation from their government or employer dates back to the colonial era. He said courts should protect people’s right to protest anonymously regardless of their view.

“The moment that you abandon that principle because the views of the speaker are unpopular, or considered hateful or offensive, then you’ve weakened the principle’s protection for everybody,” he said. “You either have a First Amendment that protects speech, regardless of viewpoint, or you don’t have a First Amendment at all.”

Mask bans with bipartisan support

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who promoted masks early in the pandemic, discussed a mask ban at a press conference late last month with Jewish leaders. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators, many wearing face coverings, had protested outside of a synagogue where a real estate auction was purportedly set to take place for properties in the occupied West Bank.

Days after her press conference, Bass, a Democrat, tested positive for COVID-19. Her office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, and it’s unclear if she will move forward with a ban.

On June 27, New York lawmakers and civil rights leaders unveiled a mask ban bill outside Columbia University, where student encampments ignited pro-Palestinian protests across the country. The political leaders invoked laws used to unmask and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan as a rationale to ban masks at Ivy League campus demonstrations and beyond. 

New York Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat who authored the bill, said the legislation’s rationale came from some in pro-Palestinian protests who he said committed crimes while masked. His bill would reinstate a ban that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t believe that people should be doing things in secret, without transparency,” Dinowitz told USA TODAY. “If you believe in a cause, then you should be proud of what you believe in and you shouldn’t cower behind a mask that covers your entire face.”

He said it would carve out exceptions for religious coverings and personal protective equipment.

As written, Dinowitz’s bill exempts “personal protective equipment” during a “declared public health emergency.” Federal and state health emergencies against COVID-19 have ended. Dinowitz, a self-described mask supporter early in the pandemic, said his bill is being reworked to permit medical-grade masks regardless of declared emergencies. He said he is confident the New York Police Department could enforce the law evenly if passed.

Dinowitz maintained his legislation doesn’t violate people’s First Amendment rights. Instead, he argued that one’s free speech during a protest shouldn’t interfere with another person’s rights.

Dinowitz added his bill would complement a proposal by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who once mandated indoor masking.

She has signaled she would prohibit some face coverings, except those for health or religious reasons, on the New York City subway, where masks were required earlier in the pandemic.

Her proposal came after a high-profile incident in which a straphanger, who was not wearing a mask, led a chant inside a crowded train car with some people wearing masks: “Raise your hands if you’re a Zionist,” before saying “This is your chance to get out.” The man accused of leading the chant turned himself in to NYPD on June 26, and was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on a charge of misdemeanor attempted coercion on Monday, court records show. He has pleaded not guilty.

Hochul’s office referred to comments she made on MSNBC in late June. “People have a right to be safe on our public transportation, walking down the streets in their places of worship,” the Democratic governor told the anchor, the Rev. Al Sharpton. “And no one should be able to hide under the cover of almost a full-face mask to commit these atrocities against fellow New Yorkers. That’s where we have to draw the line.”

Bans elsewhere have been brought by GOP lawmakers. In May, Ohio’s attorney general revived a 70-year-old law once used to prosecute the KKK that would now be targeted against university demonstrations, according to the ACLU.

On June 27 in North Carolina, the Republican-controlled General Assembly overrode the Democratic governor’s veto to pass a law restricting face coverings in public, except to prevent the spread of contagious disease. Under the face mask ban, law enforcement can require people to remove medical masks upon request.

Long Covid Families, a North Carolina advocacy group for people suffering from lasting health issues from prior infection, condemned their state’s new law.

“By associating mask-wearing with criminal activity, this law further stigmatizes individuals who wear masks out of necessity, not choice,” Megan Carmilani, founder of Long Covid Families, said in a statement. “It is unfathomable that we would create barriers for people, especially children, to protect their health.”

Health is a safety issue, too

For people who are disabled, mask bans feel like another measure to keep them out of sight after decades of progress and increased visibility with activism, several said.

Rikki Baker Keusch, 29, uses a Powecom KN95 face mask whenever they leave their Queens apartment. This includes going to work, or to specialty doctors for chronic fatigue syndrome and to treat a heart condition.

Keusch, who uses the pronoun they, was grateful other people masked and distanced early in the pandemic, seeing it as a benefit for people like them with immunocompromising conditions.

A mask ban does not address antisemitic acts, said Keusch, who is Jewish. Instead, it targets disabled activists who are at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses.

“These bans are just another way of keeping us inside,” Keusch said, adding that the bans tell people with disabilities, “you’re too sick to have the right to assemble and the right to freedom of speech.”

Julie Lam, founder of MaskTogetherAmerica, an advocacy group that has pushed for masks as a protective layer, feels similarly.

“I do not need someone that is not my doctor to tell me what I should do to protect my health,” said Lam, who has kidney disease and long COVID and can’t take updated vaccines. “It is none of their business that I don’t want to disclose what I am going through with my life to anyone, especially not to police.”

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Masks as public health tool

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masks as strategy for lowering the risk of transmitting respiratory viruses.

Transmission of viruses is less likely outdoors. In an outdoor protest, masks aren’t needed to protect public health at population levels, said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 didn’t result in significant upticks in cases for COVID-19, studies show, though a victory parade in Philadelphia at the end of World War I may have contributed to the spread of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Schaffner, of Vanderbilt, said there is increased risk for people who are gathered together for long periods and yelling or chanting, particularly for groups more vulnerable to serious illness.

Mask mandates may not be the best path forward given backlash to them earlier in the pandemic, said Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. However, masks should not be made illegal, he said, because of the possibility of new respiratory diseases.

Masking will continue to be important, regardless of one’s views on the war in Gaza, particularly for those who are immunocompromised, said Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents local health officers across the U.S.

“They are doing what they need to do to keep themselves healthy,” she said. “Somewhere in the politics and drama of this post-COVID world, we’ve lost that.”

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