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Hochul Eyeing Mask Ban on Transit After Antisemitic Incidents

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul | Facebook
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul | Facebook

By: Christian Wade | The Center Square

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says she is considering a partial mask ban on subways in response to recent anti-Semitic incidents and protests by face-covered demonstrators.

Speaking to reporters at a Thursday briefing, Hochul said she is talking with New York City Mayor Eric Adams about setting a partial ban on masks in the city's subway system after videos of masked anti-Israel protesters on a train threatening Jewish riders. One demonstrator on the subway train was caught on video calling for any "Zionists" to "raise their hands" to identify themselves.

“We will not tolerate individuals using masks to evade responsibility for criminal or threatening behavior," the Democrat said. "My team is working on a solution, but on a subway, people should not be able to hide behind a mask to commit crimes."

Earlier this week, Adams compared the protesters who covered their faces with keffiyehs – that have become a symbol of pro-Palestinian demonstrations — to Ku Klux Klan members who concealed their identities with white hoods while committing acts of violence.

"Cowards hide their face," Adams, a Democrat, said in a Wednesday radio interview. "Dr. King did not hide his face when he marched and for the things he thought were wrong in the country. Those civil rights leaders did not hide their faces. They stood up."

Hochul acknowledged on Thursday that she will need the legislature's approval to set any masking restrictions, but it's not clear if or when that will happen. State lawmakers wrapped their 2024 session at the Capitol last week, and they’re not scheduled to return to Albany until January.

In 2020, New York state repealed an 1845 ban on wearing masks in public places in response to the COVID-19 pandemic when state leaders and public health officials urged people to cover their faces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many Republican lawmakers voted against the measure, citing opposition to masking mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about public safety.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt recently filed a bill that would make wearing a "deceptive" mask during a protest or public gathering a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

The proposed mask ban would prohibit "deceptive" face coverings by anyone who "loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked, or disguised while engaged in a protest, rally or other public assembly."

It includes exemptions for masking related to "religious observances" or entertainment and events such as masquerade parties, according to the bill's wording.

But the efforts are facing pushback from civil liberties groups. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said banning "anonymous peaceful protests" won't reduce criminal activity.

"Mask bans were originally developed to squash political protests and, like other laws that criminalize people, they will be selectively enforced," she said in a statement. "A mask ban would be easily violated by bad actors and, if someone’s engages in unlawful actions, the judgement should be made based on the criminal behavior, not their attire."

New York's debate over masked protesters is playing out on many college campuses where administrators are admonishing students for covering their faces at demonstrations, in some cases, citing campus policies, and state laws prohibiting mask-wearing.

The head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, recently called for demonstrators to take off their masks during heated counter-protests and for some coverings to be outlawed entirely.

"Masks that cover the entire face have no bearing on Covid or free speech and should be banned on all college campuses effective immediately," Greenblatt posted on social media.

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