After Northam’s emergency order ends, Virginia’s face mask ban, created in 1953, goes back into effect.
BASSETT—Since the pandemic started, Angela Wright has masked up every time she’s left the house. The Bassett resident kept doing that even after getting her Moderna vaccine in March.
“I liked not getting sick in the past year, and I wear a mask for the protection of those who may not be vaccinated,” she said.
But in less than two weeks, that gesture could create problems for Wright. On June 30, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency order expires. And that means the Commonwealth’s law against wearing masks takes effect again.
Reverting To A Face Mask Ban
Virginia Code 18.2-422 makes it a Class 6 felony “for any person over 16 years of age to, with the intent to conceal his identity, wear any mask, hood or other device whereby a substantial portion of the face is hidden or covered so as to conceal the identity of the wearer.”
It’s also illegal to wear a mask “ in any public place, or upon any private property in this Commonwealth without first having obtained from the owner or tenant thereof consent to do so in writing.”
None of that applied over the last year because Gov. Northam’s emergency order suspended those rules. But when the emergency order lifts, the Code can be enforced again.
Now to be clear, there are a couple exceptions.
You can wear a mask as part of a Halloween or Christmas costume, for example. Also, theatrical productions get a pass. The same goes for doctors and nurses. If you have a specific medical requirement for wearing a mask, that counts too. But this isn’t done on the honor system. You have to carry an actual signed note from your doctor, outlining both the reasons for wearing a mask and how long you’ll need to wear it.
If none of those situations apply, that Class 6 felony charge could come into play. If you get written up, that could mean up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
A Law Enforcement Decision
Now we’re saying “could” because it will basically be up to local law enforcement agencies if the rule gets enforced. Gov. Northam’s press secretary Alena Yarmosky said he will continue to urge Virginians to wear masks if they are unvaccinated or still feel more comfortable doing so.
“While the governor is limited in his ability to clarify the code himself, we have been in touch with law enforcement and have made it clear that we expect no Virginians to be penalized for wearing masks due to COVID-19 or other health reasons,” she said.
To be clear, however, that’s not a guarantee. What Gov. Northam is doing here is a recommendation. That’s not legally binding. Any law enforcement official after June 30 can still hand out a citation, as they would be following the Virginia Code. The only way to guarantee no citations get handed out is to either keep the emergency order in place or ask the General Assembly to take it up.
The Assembly already has to hold another special session this summer, to vote on how to spend Virginia’s American Rescue Plan funding. They can simply file a bill adjusting the mask law, temporarily suspending it or eliminating it all together. The odd part, however, is that one Assembly member already tried this method and it got rejected.
A Subcommittee Said No
In December, Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) filed HB 1782 in the hopes it would be taken up during the January legislative session. The bill would have changed the prohibition on wearing masks to a Class 1 misdemeanor for only those who wear a mask while committing a crime or an act of harassment.
In other words, if you’re not harassing anyone or committing a crime, then wearing a mask would be perfectly legal. That bill never even made it to a full committee vote. By a 6-2 decision, a subcommittee agreed to set it aside permanently. Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax County), Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Fairfax County), Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Prince George) and Del. Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania County) all opposed moving forward.
The two voices of support came from Del. Nancy Guy (D-Norfolk City) and Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News).
The next option would involve filing a similar bill during the Assembly’s special session. But while it’s expected to take place either in late July or early August, no date has been confirmed. Plus, a new bill would have to be filed and go through both the House and Senate, so at the earliest, a solution wouldn’t come for more than a month.
Where Did This Come From?
We keep talking about this mask ordinance, but where did it come from? It was originally designed as an anti-Klan measure. In December 1952, Bill Hendrix, a leader in the Florida KKK, announced that he planned to reorganize the Klan in Virginia. In 1925, the Virginia Klan had 30,000 members. By the 1950s, the hate group’s membership had dropped to under 2,000.
That’s not to say racism disappeared in Virginia in those years in-between. However, it wasn’t mainly directed through the Klan.
As part of the fight to prevent the Klan from rebuilding, Virginia Gov. John Battle recommended a new law. He asked the General Assembly to ban all wearing of masks and burning crosses in public. They agreed, approving the plan in March 1953. It’s hard to tell what impact, if any, the new law had. Virginia newspapers of that period still report Klan activity, including an August 1955 cross-burning at the home of Civil Rights pioneer and NAACP member Oliver Hill.
So What’s The Point of Waiting?
Regardless of why it was created, the face mask ban currently just seems to confuse those who hear about it. That includes 35-year-old Billy Reat. The Stuart resident didn’t understand why the problem wasn’t fixed months ago.
“They’ve known this was on the books, so why isn’t it fixed?” Reat asked. “Why couldn’t they just have filed a bill, solved this problem and been done with it last winter?”
When Dogwood showed Reat that Del. Carter had tried, he rolled his eyes.
“See, that’s even worse,” Reat said. “They had a solution and said no thanks. If they didn’t want the version in that bill, why not write another one? Lord knows they talked about everything else in those sessions. Why couldn’t they have fixed this too?”
Out of 15 people Dogwood staff talked with, 11 felt the same way about the face mask ban. The other four said they never wore a mask during the pandemic and didn’t plan to start now, so they didn’t care. As for a solution, the timing for that is still up in the air. Dogwood reached out to the offices for both House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria). We asked when the special session would take place and if this would be on the agenda. Neither could be reached for comment.
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Aila Boyd is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.