After midnight, legislature punts on NC's anti-mask law

Lawmakers plan to circle back, but for now state law will prohibit face coverings come Aug. 1.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Back-and-forth talks over just what to do with North Carolina's anti-mask law broke down early Friday morning at the legislature, leaving an odd status quo in place.

For now, masks are legal, with the state's anti-mask law temporarily suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that runs out Aug 1. Come then, it will be against the law for adults to wear a face mask in North Carolina, despite an order from Gov. Roy Cooper requiring them to wear face coverings in a wide range of public situations.

That may change between now and then. Republican leaders in both General Assembly chambers said they plan to keep talking, and House leaders in particular were optimistic they can find enough common ground to let people wear face coverings without – technically, at least – breaking a law passed decades ago to target the Ku Klux Klan.

But the issue has become politically fraught, particularly in the wake of Cooper's decision this week to require masks, which block respiratory droplets that can transmit coronavirus. Sheriffs in some counties have said they won't enforce Cooper's rule.

"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," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said after 3 a.m. Friday, when the legislature wrapped up its business, at least for the next two weeks.

The legislature approved an exemption to the anti-mask law when it first met in April on coronavirus issues, but that exemption runs out in August. House Minority Leader Darren Jackson tried repeatedly to get that exemption extended to February.

He finally seemed to succeed this week, as the legislature prepared to wrap up its business. Then, somewhere before 2 a.m. Friday, Republican leaders dropped Jackson's amendment from the bill to which it had been attached.

"We're going to make it illegal to wear masks in this state Aug. 1," Jackson, D-Wake, said on the House floor early Friday. "I'll never understand how science and mask-wearing became so partisan."

House leaders said it was the Senate that insisted on dropping the amendment. House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, said the issue got too complicated to handle as the session stretched into the early morning hours.

“I never knew masks were complicated, but masks can be complicated," Bell said.

Jackson said Republicans were insisting on language that would have said the governor's mask mandate couldn't be enforced by criminal or civil penalties, which he wouldn't agree to.

Bell said he was optimistic General Assembly leaders can address the mask issue before Aug. 1. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who leads that chamber's GOP majority, would commit only to maybe.

Berger, R-Rockingham, said the legislature will continue to look at the issue between now and early July, when lawmakers are slated to gather again, primarily to reconsider bills Cooper may veto in the interim.

"We intend to work on language between now and then, and we'll see where we are," Berger said.

Democrats were incredulous.

"That seems wrong to me in the middle of a pandemic," Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said during Senate debate.

The underlying bill, without Jackson's mask extension, passed both chambers easily – unanimously in the House and 33-7 in the Senate. The measure, Senate Bill 782, deals with how much merchandise political parties can sell, and it changes election rules for judges in Mecklenburg County in response to a court decision.

On social media, Brent Woodcox, an in-house attorney for the Senate who advises Berger and other Republicans, downplayed the mask issue.

"Let me know when someone gets arrested under this law who is not in a KKK hood," Woodcox tweeted.

Asked whether he was concerned with how the early morning decision might look politically, Berger said everyone needs to wait and see how lawmakers ultimately handle the matter.

"I learned a long time ago not to get real upset about something until I knew it was going to happen," he said. "If folks want to jump to conclusions, I guess they'll do that."

WRAL capitol bureau chief Laura Leslie contributed to this story.


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