NC Republicans reach compromise on masking bill, allowing only ‘medical’ face coverings

State House and Senate Republicans negotiating a compromise on the mask bill that stalled last month have reached an agreement.

The Senate-passed version of the bill would’ve repealed an exception to the state’s longstanding ban on wearing a mask in public for health and safety reasons.

The version of the bill negotiated between Republicans in both chambers in recent days, addressing concerns from House Republicans about whether people could continue to wear masks for health and safety reasons without fearing that they could be violating the law, keeps the provision in place but significantly rewrites it.

The new bill unveiled Thursday morning would only allow the wearing of a “medical or surgical grade mask” for the purpose of “preventing the spread of contagious disease.”

The current exception, which was added during the pandemic, is written more broadly to allow people to wear any kind of mask to ensure “the physical health or safety of the wearer or others.”

Negotiations between House and Senate Republicans began after the House voted not to concur with the bill as it was passed by the Senate, setting up what’s known as a conference committee, where a few lawmakers appointed by legislative leaders try to come up with a compromise both caucuses can agree on.

What else is in the compromise mask bill?

The main issue Republicans negotiated among themselves was the health and safety provision.

But there are several other provisions in the bill relating to masks, some of which were included in the Senate’s version of the bill. Here’s what else the bill would do:

Impose an “enhanced sentence if defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony and the defendant was wearing a mask or other clothing or device to conceal or attempt to conceal the defendant’s identity.”

Require a person wearing a mask under the new exception for preventing the spread of contagious disease to “remove the mask upon request by a law enforcement officer or temporarily remove the mask upon request by the owner or occupant of public or private property where the wearer is present to allow for identification of the wearer.”

Impose penalties for people who participate in demonstrations that are intended to block traffic.

States that no religious institutions are subject to an executive order, secretarial declaration or municipal or local government prohibition or restriction.

Debate over the masking provisions was overshadowed by a controversial new section GOP lawmakers added to the bill during the conference committee process that deals with campaign finance rules.

Votes coming up

The compromise between the two chambers on the mask bill was introduced in the House Thursday morning, after House members quickly took up other bills on their calendar for the day.

Speaker Tim Moore announced that the compromise bill had been agreed upon, and referred it to the House Rules Committee, which planned to convene while the House took a brief recess.

Moore said he expected the bill would be back on the House floor for a vote later Thursday morning, but after House Republicans got together for a caucus meeting following the morning session, House Rules Chairman Destin Hall told The News & Observer that the committee wouldn’t meet Thursday, and the bill would instead be taken up directly on the House floor next week, likely on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved the new masking bill, with the campaign finance provision, in a 28-0 vote. All Senate Democrats walked out in protest ahead of the vote.

If the bill passes the House next week, it’ll go to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.