Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups push for mask ban

The NAACP New York Conference, ADL and other groups are backing a mask ban introduced by Assembly Member Jeff Dinowitz.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz speaks at the launch of the #UnMaskHateNY campaign outside Columbia University on June 27, 2024.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz speaks at the launch of the #UnMaskHateNY campaign outside Columbia University on June 27, 2024. Rebecca C. Lewis

A group of Democratic state lawmakers have joined with an array of civil rights organizations, Jewish groups and faith leaders to push for a new ban on masks in New York state. On Thursday, supporters of the potential ban gathered outside Columbia University to launch a new social media campaign in favor of the ban, called #UnmaskHateNY. The NAACP New York Conference, National Urban League, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Community Relations Council, UJA-Federation and at least 11 Democratic state legislators have all expressed support for the potential mask ban.

The push to reinstate the state’s mask ban – which was originally passed in 1845 in response to tenant riots but was repealed during the COVID-19 pandemic – comes as Gov. Kathy Hochul has floated the possibility of banning masks on subways over concerns about public safety and antisemitic protests. Opponents of the ban say it will hurt people who are still masking for health reasons, including immunocompromised and disabled individuals, and could be used as a pretext to criminalize pro-Palestine demonstrations. But proponents of reinstating the ban say that their intent is not to outlaw medical masks, just to prevent people from concealing their identities.

Speakers at the #UnmaskHateNY launch repeatedly invoked the specter of the Klu Klux Klan in their remarks. While the KKK was not the original target of New York state’s mask ban, bans on face coverings at public gatherings have been successfully used against the hate group in New York and other states. 

Marc Morial, president of civil rights group the National Urban League, said that he sees echoes of the KKK in protests today where demonstrators cover their faces. “I believe that the lessons learned around the Ku Klux Klan, around those that would commit violence, instruct us – advise us that good public policy, good public policy involves not allowing protesters to wear masks,” Morial said.

Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, echoed Morial’s concerns about the history of face coverings and the KKK. “Black communities know all too well that individuals who hide their identities with intent to terrorize, intimidate or harass are a threat to all of our safety and have no place in New York,” Dukes said in a statement released after the press conference. “Reinstating New York’s masking laws will protect New Yorkers from some of the most terrifying periods in our history; when the Klan menaced Black Americans, faces covered, without accountability. We can’t let history repeat itself.”

Although Morial and others insisted that the push for a mask ban is not meant to target any specific protest movement, many of the speakers at the rally spoke about alleged incidents of antisemitism at recent pro-Palestine demonstrations that featured protesters wearing various kinds of masks or face coverings. It was also not a coincidence that the rally took place outside Columbia University, where pro-Palestine encampments and protests gained national attention. 

Many of those protests at Columbia and elsewhere have been criticized as antisemitic, and reports of antisemitic incidents have markedly increased since Oct. 7. “People are being targeted simply because they are Jews,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “They're being targeted for no other reason than their faith, their ethnicity, their identities. It is unacceptable.”

Other representatives from Jewish organizations who attended the rally shared similar concerns as Greenblatt. At one point, a passerby yelled “free Palestine” while Noam Gilboord, COO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, spoke. “Have I said anything about that? I'm talking about my Jewish identity on the street,” Gilbrood said, pointing to his yarmulke and adding that it makes him a target.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz introduced legislation in May that would bring back the ban on facial coverings at public demonstrations. Like others at the press conference, he referenced the KKK in making his case for his bill.

“You know what the difference (is) between the people who wrap those things around their heads leaving only room for their eyes and somebody wearing a white hood with just room for their eyes?” asked Dinowitz, referring to Palestinian protesters who have wrapped Palestinian keffiyehs around their faces in ways that conceal their identities. “The difference is there is no difference – they’re the same, their motives are the same and they’re just as evil as each other.” After receiving criticism over the remark, Dinowitz clarified in a post on X that he intended only to compare the act of covering one’s face and said he should have “spoken more artfully.” “I absolutely do not equate the two in and of themselves. Full stop,” he wrote.

Support and opposition

Dinowitz’s bill, which he called a work in progress, has already attracted five co-sponsors: Assembly Members Sam Berger, Deborah Glick, Charles Lavine, Andrew Hevesi and Amy Paulin, the chair of the Assembly Health Committee. In June, state Sen. James Skoufis introduced a companion bill in his own chamber. Assembly Members Brian Cunningham, Nily Rozic (who both attended the launch), Jenifer Rajkumar and Eddie Gibbs have also released statements in favor of the bill, though they are not listed as co-sponsors. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have also indicated support for a mask ban. “New York City will always defend your right to free speech and will continue to protect public health, but we are increasingly seeing masked protestors using anonymity to intimidate, threaten, and break the law,” Adams said in a statement following the press conference. “This behavior is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it.”

At the rally, Dinowitz said that he would like to pass the bill as soon as possible and would like to see lawmakers return to Albany before next year to do that. But not everyone is on board with the push to bring back the mask ban. Progressives are concerned about the negative health implications of banning masks during a pandemic, and those supportive of the pro-Palestine movement fear that the ban would be used to crack down on peaceful protests. “I have heard concerns from constituents, health professionals and advocates about the way this runs count to good public health policy, including from Jewish New Yorkers,” Assembly Member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas told City & State. “Even with a health exemption, this could open the door to unequal enforcement of such a ban, which usually disproportionately impacts communities of color.”

Fellow Assembly Member Harvey Epstein also expressed concern about enacting a new mask ban. “The criminalization of wearing personal protective equipment does nothing to keep us safer,” he wrote in a post on X. “It puts (immunocompromised) NYers at risk & opens the door for over-policing & harassment of people protecting their health in accordance with recommendations by @HealthNYGov.” And state Sen. Jessica Ramos wrote on X that the attempt is “well-intentioned,” she called it “reactive policymaking (that) can have unintended consequences.”

The progressive organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice released a statement criticizing the rally and the proposed mask ban. “Regardless of legislators’ motivations for proposing a mask ban, the impact will be: a blow to public health in our state; discrimination against immunocompromised people; and to advance a broader anti-democratic effort to suppress and criminalize protest. We urge all New York State legislators to oppose this bill,” the group’s executive director Audrey Sasson said. 

Proposals like those from Hochul and Dinowitz have also spurred the creation of a new group dedicated to opposing mask bans: Jews for Mask Rights. The group released an open letter focused on the health implications of a mask ban that the letter calls “a direct violation of Jewish values.” The group claims over 700 signatories to the letter. 

Surgical and N95 masks

Dinowitz’s bill includes a narrow carve-out for personal protective equipment won during a declared public health emergency, though such an exception would not currently apply since there is no public health emergency declared in New York state. The bill does not include a blanket exemption for medical masks, which still cover half the face and could make identification more difficult.

At the press conference, Dinowitz said that surgical and N95 masks are not the intended target of his legislation. He called concern that medical masks would be banned “red herring because people who wear those often are not people who try to conceal their identity.” He and other speakers at the rally insisted that the proposed ban would not affect those masking for health reasons. “This isn't about preventing anyone from wearing medical masks or religious garb,” Greenblatt said. “This is about ensuring the majority of New Yorkers are not terrorized by KKK tactics.”

Hochul has previously said that she supports banning masks, but not at protests. “We are not talking about masks at protests,” the governor said at an unrelated press conference last week. “We’re talking about people who use facial coverings to cover up their identity when they’re going to be committing a crime… or to intimidate or threaten people as happened on the subway.” Hochul was likely referencing an incident earlier this month when several pro-Palestine protesters wearing keffiyehs were recorded on the subway saying that Zionists should exit the train car. One person identified in the video, who was not wearing any kind of mask, later turned themselves in to the police in connection with the incident.

On Sunday, Hochul said on MSNBC that she would not support banning masks worn for health reasons. “If people want to wear surgical masks on the subway, go ahead and do it,” she said. “Probably people who have less colds, less cases of COVID, that’s fine.” Dinowitz said that he thinks “most people” would not support a ban on medical masks on subways and that was not his intention of his proposed legislation. But when asked later whether his proposed ban would also apply to masks worn at protests or on the subway, Dinowitz replied, “yes.”