Ettinger: Outdated Laws Like A Face Mask Ban Only Help Those in Power

By Eve Ettinger

June 21, 2021

We need to get our priorities straight and focus on protecting children, rather than enforcing an outdated face mask ban.

Two years ago, I covered the gun rights rally in Richmond on Lobby Day for Vice Media. The other journalists I was with kept commenting on how the police were covering their faces with ski masks. That meant the photographers could not document their faces in our photos. They were frustrated—this was dodging accountability, they said. Not only that, but Virginia had a face mask ban in place at that time.

At the end of the day, I learned that a young counter-protester had been arrested during a peaceful demonstration for wearing a bandana over the lower half of her face. It was a moment showing the egregious double standard: the pro-gun crowd could wear scarves over their faces, the cops could wear ski masks, but this young student protesting could not simply keep herself warm in public without getting charged with a class 6 felony.

The law dates back to the 1950s, designed to empower law enforcement to unmask KKK members, and carries with it a potential prison sentence. It served its purpose at the time, but now we’re still battling a global pandemic that’s primarily spread through aerosolized contact, and wearing masks is a matter of public health urgency. The law was effectively suspended during the institution of statewide mask mandates. 

Del. Carter’s attempt at a future-forward reform failed

The conversation about mask wearing and the fallout of the gun rally moved Del. Lee Carter to file a bill last December to change this law. His bill would make it a misdemeanor only if the person wearing a mask is committing a crime. This would have protected peaceful protestors and removed any issues around wearing masks for health reasons.

Some immunosuppressed or immunocompromised individuals will still want to wear them out of an abundance of caution, and many populations still cannot get vaccinated—e.g., young children—and should still be masking for their own safety. However, the bill failed in a subcommittee and the law remains in place as it was. And now the mask mandate has been lifted for the state. All of that means as of June 30, it will be illegal again to wear a mask in Virginia if an officer of the law decides that you’re attempting to conceal your identity with it. 

I’m baffled by the fact that Carter’s bill didn’t survive to pass in session. It seems like a no-brainer, and would be an immediate adjustment to the existing law in a way that would preserve its intentions and protect those at risk from COVID. It would also allow those who do need to wear masks for other health reasons (allergies, anyone?) to do so without fear of repercussions. Carter can be seen as too radically leftist by much of the Democrat caucus, but this proposal was one of his least controversial, at least from my perspective. Just because Carter was the sponsor is no reason for our elected representatives to ignore such a common sense measure and set us up for problems later. 

The face mask ban puts children at greater risk

Going forward, we are looking at a state that’s reopened and mask-optional, thanks to the economic motivators. Meanwhile, the anti-mask/anti-vax fearmongers in our communities are going to take full advantage of this and put the lives of others at risk as a result, especially kids. Children have been the most vulnerable population in all of this, as the vaccine trials did not include children and the risks of the COVID vaccines to smaller bodies is as of yet largely unknown. Kids have been put back into school in person despite this, and kids have been the only members of our society who were not required to wear masks in public. Why? Because it’s hard to make small, busy bodies keep masks on consistently and few masks fit well on child-sized faces.

To lift the mandate while allowing the old law against mask-wearing to stand is fundamentally a move that empowers racially prejudiced or ableist officers of the law to punish someone they see as deviant from whatever their “normal” might be. This means that inevitably some bad apple is going to use this to punish someone wearing a mask for good reason in public without just cause. As we have so often seen, that can put the lives of the oppressed at serious risk of death by cop. 

It’s time to get our priorities straight

Ironically, it’s those who are most often interested in “saving the children” who are against mask wearing mandates. Also, it’s those who are most interested in using proven scientific methods to end the COVID pandemic who didn’t see fit to support Carter’s failed bill. Both groups need to take a beat and consider the long-term ramifications of their stubborn refusal to actually think of the needs of children and the disabled.

Yes, we know capitalism demands they sacrifice these populations on its altar of constant motion toward generating revenue for the most wealthy. But what is our future as a society if we allow these individuals to be in greater danger of systemic oppression? Especially when we could just eliminate an outdated law and replace it with a more current and pragmatic version?

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