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.
At least 18 states and the District of Columbia, however, have laws that penalize those who wear face masks. Anti-mask laws are legislative or penal initiatives that prohibit the wearing of face coverings in public places. Some of these are blanket bans on wearing a mask in public while others bar the wearing of masks to commit a crime or deprive a person of their constitutional rights.
Anti-mask laws existed since 1845, the first being passed in New York. The provisions were passed to provide public safety after disputes between landlords and tenant farmers. Many of these laws were enacted to combat the Ku Klux Klan but the laws have also been used against people protesting racism.
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.
So, are people wearing masks to protect themselves during the coronavirus pandemic breaking the law? The states with anti-mask laws cause confusion when their governments are urging people to wear face coverings to help protect themselves.
For example, Alabama’s Attorney General had to publicly announce that the state would not enforce its Nati-mask law during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the Governor of Georgia has to sign an executive order suspending the enforcement of the mask law if the wearer is doing so to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.
The states with anti-mask laws in the U.S. are:
- District of Columbia
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
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, Florida, and the District of Columbia make it an offense to wear a mask if the person commits a crime or intends to commit a crime. Additionally, in the District of Columbia, 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 intended to deprive another person of their constitutional rights.