Despite tweaks, NC’s mask bill could still limit infection protection | Opinion

Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

Ginny Dudek lives with a severely weakened immune system. She survives by injecting herself twice a week with antibodies and rarely venturing out.

“I pretty much live in a bubble,” she told me. But when she does leave her home, she wears a mask over her nose and mouth to avoid getting infected.

On Tuesday morning, the 72-year-old Durham resident traveled to Raleigh where she stood with others in front of the Legislative Building to object to the latest bit of divisive maliciousness to emerge from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. That is House Bill 237, an act that would restrict the wearing of masks in public.

“It’s like insanity. It’s like what in the world?” Dudek said. “Don’t you have more important things to do as a legislature? It makes no sense to me.”

The bill arose out of Republican concerns over Black Lives Matter and pro-Palestinian protesters wearing masks during marches and demonstrations. Its justification is that restricting masks will make it easier for police to identify protesters who engage in obstructive, destructive or violent behavior.

That justification has its own problems – such as violating the First Amendment and inviting China-style facial recognition surveillance – but it also overlooks people such as Dudek, who rely on masks to protect themselves from frequent and potentially deadly infections. When the bill surfaced, health advocates objected and lawmakers tweaked the wording to allow masks worn for medical reasons..

Dudek thought that was the end of the issue, but she said the wording about who can wear a mask – and who can ask to have it removed – is so vague that it puts those with compromised immune systems at risk. “The way the wording is, it just reduces my freedom to feel safe in the world,” she said.

As a practical matter, Dudek is unlikely to be told to remove her mask. Most of her outings are to Duke Medical Center or to restaurants during hours when there are few customers. But she worries about more active people who may be told to take off their masks.

“I’m not so concerned about me, but I’m concerned about the people much younger that go out to places, concerts and whatever,” she said.

Causes of immune deficiency vary. In Dudek’s case, she was infected with Lyme disease at age 50 and the illness eroded her ability to fight off infections. Cancer treatments can weaken immunity. Some people are born with immune deficiencies.

In her remarks at the Legislative Building news conference held by mask bill opponents, Dudek said: “This bill added language that gives anyone who is in the same space as me, whether it is in a public or private location, the right to request that I remove my mask to show them my face.”

Republican lawmakers were not moved by the objections. They passed the bill on Tuesday and sent it to Gov. Roy Cooper. Ironically, it includes an unrelated provision that effectively would allow national political donors to North Carolina campaigns to “mask” their identities.

Cooper will veto this ill-conceived measure that would be hazardous to people and to politics. And the Republicans will likely override the veto. That will enter into law changes that could expose the vulnerable to illness.

Dudek said, “Today I have the privilege of wearing a mask and tomorrow I may not.”

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

Advertisement