Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask has been highly recommended by medical professionals to prevent the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask is believed to be so effective that 34 states and the District of Columbia have mandated masks or face coverings in public places. However, there are previous laws that penalize those who wear face masks.
The History of Anti-Mask Laws
Anti-mask laws prohibit the wearing of face coverings in public places. Some of these are blanket bans on wearing any mask in public while others bar the wearing of masks to commit a crime or deprive a person of their constitutional rights. Many of these laws were enacted to combat the Ku Klux Klan but the laws have also been used against people protesting racism or corruption.
The first anti-mask law was passed in 1845 in New York. The provisions were passed to provide public safety after disputes between landlords and tenant farmers led to a revolt in upstate New York. Anti-mask laws have been challenged in the U.S. because they violate the First Amendment rights to free speech and free association. These challenges have been struck down by courts based on public safety interests. The Georgia Supreme Court decided that wearing a mask was a sign of intimidation and a threat of violence.
States With Anti-Mask Laws
The states with anti-mask laws in the U.S. are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The District of Columbia and New York both repealed their anti-mask laws in June 2020.
Anti-mask laws vary by state. In South Carolina, no person over 16 can wear a mask that conceals their identity in public except for traditional holiday costumes, for one’s employment, theater productions, or gas masks for specific purposes. Similar laws exist in Georgia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. In Louisiana and Minnesota, the laws make an exception for religious face coverings. Virginia’s provisions make an exception for medical reasons and if the governor declares an emergency exemption.
California, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Florida make it an offense to wear a mask if the person commits a crime or intends to commit a crime. Additionally, in Florida, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, it is an offense to wear a mask with the intent to harass or intimidate another person. In Connecticut, Delaware, and New Mexico, anti-mask laws require the wearer to intend to deprive another person of their constitutional rights.
Anti-Mask Laws and COVID-19
So, are people wearing masks to protect themselves during the coronavirus pandemic breaking the law? The states with anti-mask laws may cause confusion when people are being urged to wear face coverings to help protect themselves.
In mid-2020, Alabama’s Attorney General had to publicly announce that the state would not enforce its anti-mask law during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor of Georgia similarly had to sign an executive order suspending the enforcement of the mask law if the mask is being worn to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.