masking matters

Proposed New York mask ban receives broad, bipartisan support 

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY): ‘If you are wearing a mask for nefarious purposes — with the intent of harassing, intimidating, or committing violence against Jews — then prohibiting it by law is common sense’

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

A pro Palestinian demonstrator blocks their face during a march through Greenwich Village, May 3, 2024, in New York City, New York.

A push by New York state lawmakers to implement mask bans in some public settings, coming largely in response to recent antisemitic activity in New York City, is winning bipartisan support.

The effort comes weeks after masked demonstrators protested outside the Nova music festival exhibit in Manhattan, targeted Jews and Zionists on subways, harassed members of the board of the Brooklyn Museum at their homes and occupied parts of Columbia University’s campus for weeks.

Jewish and Black advocacy groups are pushing for pending legislation to ban masks at protests. New York had an anti-masking law in place since the 1800s, until the COVID-19 pandemic, initially implemented in response to the Ku Klux Klan. 

The main state-level proposal is currently being sponsored by Democrats, but the initiative has bipartisan backing among New York’s congressional delegation. 

State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat sponsoring legislation in Albany to ban masks at protests in most circumstances, said that the legislation essentially seeks to reinstate the pre-COVID masking ban.

“I think that people should not be able to cover their face, to conceal their identity in situations like what we’ve seen,” said Dinowitz, who represents Riverdale and other sections of the Bronx. “Part of the reason people feel free to do what they do is because they cover their faces.”

He said that while the legislation has been inspired by recent antisemitic incidents, it would be broadly applicable to protecting communities of all kinds. Dinowitz said the legislation wouldn’t apply to those masking for religious or health reasons.

“What we’re hoping to do, and what we’re trying to do, is put together a diverse coalition of people of good will who want to fight hate,” Dinowitz said. “It’s not just Jewish issue any more than it was once just a Black issue. It should be everybody’s issue and people should really care about this because the climate has just gotten worse and worse, and the freedom that people feel to do horrible things is shocking to me.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has said she’s considering pursuing a ban on masks specifically on the subway, saying that “no one should be able to hide under the cover of almost a full-face mask to commit these atrocities against fellow New Yorkers.”

Dinowitz said that Hochul’s approach is different from his legislation, but said that the focus on fighting hate is similar.

“If you are wearing a mask for nefarious purposes — with the intent of harassing, intimidating, or committing violence against Jews — then prohibiting it by law is common sense,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) told JI in a statement. “The use of masking to enable terror and violence — particularly by the KKK against Black Americans — is an appalling part of our nation’s history.”

The Black and Jewish advocacy groups supporting a mask ban have drawn similar parallels between modern-day antisemitic harassment and the KKK’s domestic terror.

“The recent surge in antisemitism in New York and across the country is absolutely unacceptable, and we must not allow these masked cowards, who are aligning themselves with terrorist organizations, to continue enjoying anonymity,” Rep. Nick Langworthy (R-NY) said in a statement.

Langworthy blamed the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded during the pandemic, for starting the current trend of masked protest.

“Democrats in New York have normalized this practice during destructive BLM riots and other protests, but this ends now,” Langworthy said. “A mask ban would ensure that those who incite violence and hatred can be identified and held fully accountable by law enforcement and employers.”

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY) described “targeted mask bans” as “a step in the right direction.”

“Terrorist sympathizers advancing their antisemitic agenda under the guise of anti-Israel protests have been allowed to operate with impunity across New York for far too long thanks to progressive district attorneys as well as their allies in Albany,” D’Esposito added in a statement.

Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-NY) said that “the push is a no-brainer.”

“We can’t keep letting anonymous goons in masks terrorize New Yorkers,” Molinaro said in a statement. “If Governor Hochul is serious about public safety, she will close this loophole.”

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) also agreed.

“Antisemitic protesters are hiding behind masks, spreading hatred and concealing their identities to escape consequences,” Tenney told JI in a statement. “We must stop these cowards from further terrorizing the Jewish community.”

Mark Treyger, the CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which is supporting the mask ban effort, told JI the state needs to “urgently advance a comprehensive plan” to address skyrocketing antisemitism.

“Dangerous and despicable actions such as intentionally covering your face to go hunting for Jews inside of a NYC subway should not feel the comfort of state law,” Treyger continued. “I commend lawmakers, advocates, and community leaders for pushing common sense public safety regulations, which include reasonable accommodations, as part of a broader effort to ensure the safety and inclusion of all New Yorkers, including members of the Jewish community.” 

At the state level, Dinowitz said that a Republican colleague had introduced a similar bill, and said that those concerned should be able to work together toward a common goal. But the Assembly isn’t scheduled to be back in session until January. Dinowitz said that, if there is a special session before then, “I would hope this is an issue which we take up sooner rather than later. It should not wait.”

Some critics of the legislation have argued that it would penalize those wearing masks for health reasons, or could infringe on free speech and other constitutional rights.

Dinowitz emphasized that the legislation will protect mask-wearing for health reasons — he said it’s aimed primarily at protesters who’ve been covering nearly their entire heads, for which he argued there is no legitimate health-related explanation. He said that medical concerns could be litigated in court if the bill is passed and enforced.

He also highlighted that New York’s previous mask ban was upheld by courts in the past, and that the bill would include religious exemptions for full-face coverings.

One member of the New York congressional delegation also argued that a mask ban is downstream of what he described as the central problem in New York — lax enforcement of existing laws.

“The only reason we’re discussing a mask ban on New York City subways is because Governor Hochul and Alvin Bragg are unwilling, and seemingly unable, to hold criminals accountable,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) said. “From folks taking over buildings at Columbia University to hooligans snatching purses on subways, New York City’s crime crisis is totally out-of-control. While a mask ban may help in identifying criminals and antisemitic protesters, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem — a lack of accountability for those that break the law.” 

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