Mask bill revamps 1940s felony law

Did you know wearing a mask in Virginia is a felony? It might not be for much longer.

By Liz Butterfield | Capital News Service

Cold pedestrians and cyclists may be relieved to cover their faces without risk of arrest if a bill on the wearing of masks passes in the Virginia General Assembly this spring.

House Bill 542 aims to change a law regarding the wearing of masks and facial coverings to charge only those covering their face with the intent to do harm.

Under current law, it is a Class 6 felony to be caught wearing a mask in public or in private places in Virginia.

Chief patron of the bill Delegate Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said she learned about the law after a citizen approached her with a personal concern.

The man told McQuinn he was stopped by a policeman while crossing the Martin Luther King bridge last winter and was asked to remove a protective mask.

McQuinn said she looked into the issue and was surprised to find the law had not been amended since its creation.

"I’m trying to fix that so that people are able to wear a mask and protect themselves from very extreme weather,” McQuinn said, “but yet also make sure that those who are concerned about anyone doing mischief will also not be negatively impacted.”

The law probably was created in the 1940s in order to prevent members of the Ku Klux Klan from wearing facial coverings, McQuinn said.

McQuinn’s bill amends the old law to reserve felony charges only those cover their face with the intent to commit a crime.

However, the proposed changes are causing some pushback from some business community members who are concerned the bill may cause an increase in mask wearing around their business.

“I’ve gotten some push back on the bill from the business community that is concerned about someone coming, wearing a mask and going into a store or a bank or something and robbing it,” McQuinn said. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to impact them (businesses).”

McQuinn said she is in the process of adding amendments to the bill to compromise with her opponents, including adding a possible condition on winter months and extreme temperatures.

River City Women’s racing member Ann Hardy says she supports the bill because it eliminates a potential hardship for cyclists. Although not frequently enforced, the old law put cyclists who wear a balaclava, a winter mask that covers the neck and face from winter elements, at risk of arrest, which “almost borderlines ridiculous,” Hardy said.

"They [cyclists] would be for the bill because it changes it to include language that specifically says there has to be an intent to conceal your identity,” Hardy said. “Anybody that partakes in outdoor activities in the winter weather would benefit from this legislation.”

After the bill is amended, it will be reviewed by the House Committee for Courts of Justice.

photo by Arctic Warrior

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