Coronavirus

The politics of face masks comes to the state Legislature

New York Republicans are looking for excuses to go maskless.

State Senator Robert Ortt protesting the removal of the law banning the wearing of masks in public.

State Senator Robert Ortt protesting the removal of the law banning the wearing of masks in public. New York State Senate Live Feed

Face masks have become a political wedge issue across the country, and New York politicians are no different.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo donned a surgical mask as he entered the White House on Wednesday to meet President Donald Trump. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie posted pictures of their masked faces Wednesday as their respective chambers were getting ready to reconvene for the first time since early April.

The issue of masks took on a greater significance Thursday during legislative debates on a bill that would repeal an 1845 ban on wearing masks in public places. Not only were many Republican lawmakers opposed to the measure – they expressed their opinions with barefaced appearances on a video livestream that quickly made its way into the Twittersphere.

“It is important to set an example,” said state Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. “This is not about politics but about public safety and science.”

It would be easy to see the maskless Republican lawmakers as a simple rebuke of state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who noted that infectious droplets can travel far when people speak. But that is not how one GOP senator, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, saw it. “There is no love lost for Gianaris, and particularly him telling them to do it,” said the GOP senator. “I think it had more to do with their constituents. (Republican senators) would have taken major grief from the folks back home if they wore a mask.”

Of course, that is not how GOP senators put things as they spoke on the floor. State Sen. Patrick Gallivan noted the discomfort of speaking while wearing a mask. State Sen. Pamela Helming said she was taking hers off so that deaf people could read her lips on the livestream.

A third Republican senator, Robert Ortt, did not offer a reason for going maskless as he railed against a bill that he said would enable hate groups and criminals to run amok in a post-pandemic world. “New York’s mask law was enacted to prevent dangerous groups like the KKK and antifa from intimidating the general public,” he later said on Twitter. “By removing this law, even after COVID related health concerns have passed, we are opening the door to issues of public safety, and worse, acts of intimidation.”

Assembly GOP members made similar arguments, but that misses the whole point of the legislation, according to Democratic Assemblyman Dan Quart, who sponsored the bill along with state Sen. Jamaal Bailey. “There are a whole host of governmental responses to ensure law and order or public safety,” Quart said. “That includes the permit process on the ability of groups, not individuals, to aggregate and protest. Secondly, individual bigots like the (Ku Klux Klan), they don’t usually just stay in their lane. ... They also engage in disorderly conduct, assault, other violations of law.” It should be noted that when a KKK recruitment leaflet was spotted in several upstate counties in 2018, the state launched an investigation.

The mask law was passed by the state Legislature in response to tenant rebellions against feudalistic landlords in the Hudson Valley, as chronicled in Howard Zinn’s landmark book, “A People’s History of the United States.” In the nearly two centuries that followed, the law has not prevented the KKK from rallying in Manhattan, but it has been a handy tool for police.

“Laws prohibiting mask-wearing, on the books across the United States, passed in some states as a response to the Ku Klux Klan. New York’s law was different,” The New Republic wrote last month. “Since the late 1960s, New York’s anti-mask law has been enforced (to police) the working class and activists: theater troupes staging publicanti-war performances, bandanna-wearinganarchists in Union Square on May Day,protesters donning Guy Fawkes masks during Occupy Wall Street.”

So if the mask ban is not about fighting the klan or preventing bank robberies, why are Republicans opposed to changing the law? The debate in the Assembly offered a clue when Republican Minority Leader Pro Tempore Andy Goodell claimed that he and other lawmakers – including some Democrats – were wearing masks off-camera – though they clearly were not. The point is that for GOP politicians, wearing a mask is a political statement that risks angering die-hard Trump supporters.

To be fair to GOP lawmakers, Assembly Democrats were also going maskless at times during the session on Wednesday, including Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who proceeds over the chamber with a booming voice that likely projects droplets all over the place. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes was also among the lawmakers and staff who worked maskless in close quarters at times. A spokeswoman for Heastie did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

While it might endanger his staff or anyone else who comes near him, the president does actually have a good reason for avoiding masks, according to journalist David Frum. If he wore one, it would be a visual statement of his own failure to stop a pandemic that he once claimed would magically disappear. If that means then that Republicans down the pecking order must say that their opposition to wearing masks stems from a desire to speak more clearly, help deaf people or for other reasons, well, that’s just politics in the new normal.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.