NC House passes masking bill opposed by state health officials, Gov. Cooper

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The state House of Representatives approved a controversial bill impacting masks, protests and campaign finance regulations with a final vote of  69-43 Tuesday. The bill now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper who has publicly criticized it.

The revised bill emerged last week following closed-door talks among Republicans in the House and Senate.

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Senate Republicans initially sought last month to repeal a COVID-era exemption to the state’s mask law, which would have eliminated the ability to wear a mask for health and safety reasons.

After facing pushback, including from some Republicans in the House, they agreed revised language that would allow people to wear a “medical or surgical grade mask for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease.”

The bill came in part as a response to recent protests on college campuses, including at UNC-Chapel Hill, where some people wore masks to conceal their identities. The bill includes enhanced penalties for wearing a mask while committing another crime.

“So, we wanted to craft the bill in such a way that it really dealt with those that are breaking the law but wasn’t written in such a way that there’s loopholes that criminals could work through,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). “We really worked hard to craft language that would allow people to wear a mask for a bona fide health reason. In fact, we consulted with the Department of Health and Human Services.”

NC House Speaker Tim Moore speaks ahead of the June 11, 2024 vote on the revised masking bill. (Courtesy NC General Assembly)

NCDHHS officials told state lawmakers Tuesday in an email obtained by CBS 17 that the agency objects to the bill.

“DHHS is not supportive… as DHHS continues to recommend not repealing the existing physical health and safety exception,” writes Janssen White, assistant secretary for government affairs for NCDHHS.

White also noted the agency “offered potential changes” if Republicans planned to move forward with the legislation and said the bill had been “improved” from what was originally proposed.

The bill also allows law enforcement as well as the owner or occupant of public or private property to request someone remove their mask temporarily in order to identify them.

Cheryl Carter, co-executive director of Democracy NC, said that provision concerns her because of how quickly viruses can spread. She talked about her own experience with COVID and the ongoing effects of it.

“I was miserable. It took me more than seven months to recover and because of that I also have times where I continue to deal with brain fog,” she said. “I mask everywhere.”

Carter was among several speakers at a press conference ahead of the vote Tuesday who also raised concerns about the bill’s potential to have a chilling effect on protests.

It includes penalties for blocking roads and would hold organizers of protests liable if those roadblocks impede emergency vehicles from getting to people and that leads to serious injury or death.

Last Thursday, Senate Democrats walked off the floor after learning Republicans included a new, unrelated provision allowing political action committees to funnel money to state parties, which Democrats say would increase the amount of so-called “dark money” coming into state elections, including in the governor’s race.

Republicans say that provision came in response to an opinion issued by the NC State Board of Elections in 2020 that they say advantaged the Democratic Governors Association.

“It will essentially level the playing field when it comes to outside groups that are gonna be playing in various elections in the state,” said Speaker Moore. “The fairest thing to do if you’re going to allow this outside money is, one, just make sure it’s a level playing field to make sure the rules don’t advantage one side or the other.”

Ann Webb, policy director for Common Cause North Carolina, said it’ll make it more difficult to know who’s trying to use their money to influence elections.

“It also makes it much easier for wealthy mega donors to mask their identities when pouring money into political campaigns in our state,” she said. “Well, we’re calling a foul because neither party should be hiding money and allowing mega donors to pay to play.”

On Monday, Jordan Monaghan, a spokesman for Gov. Cooper, said he’s against the bill.

“Governor Cooper opposes Republicans changing campaign donation rules behind closed doors just months before an election to let out-of-state billionaires rescue their extreme right wing statewide candidates. This goes against the guidance of the State Board of Elections and political donations should be more transparent, not less,” he said.

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