New York Governor Open to Reinstating Mask Ban Amid Surge of Anti-Semitic Incidents

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will ‘absolutely’ take a look at the option.
New York Governor Open to Reinstating Mask Ban Amid Surge of Anti-Semitic Incidents
Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine outside of the Columbia University campus in New York City on Nov. 15, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul might consider bringing back a long-standing ban on wearing masks in public to prevent perpetrators of anti-Semitic aggression from concealing their identities.

In a June 11 interview with CNN, the Democrat governor said it is “not difficult” to balance free speech with safety amid heightened tensions over pro-Palestinian protests, pledging that her administration will not tolerate behaviors that cross the line from free speech into hate crime.

“If someone wants to stand on a street, protest—they can do whatever they want,” she told host Laura Coates. “You go onto a subway train and threaten people and frighten them? You vandalize a home? Those are illegal acts. That is not even close to being speech.”

The governor was referring to a June 10 incident in which a group of apparent pro-Palestinian protesters—hiding their faces under masks and scarfs—commandeered a subway train and demanded that “Zionists” among the passengers identify themselves. The New York Police Department (NYPD) is asking riders who were aboard that subway car and felt threatened to come forward.

She was also referring to the vandalizing of the home of Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak. According to the police, a group of five vandals in the early hours of June 12 splattered red paint at the front entrance of Ms. Pasternak’s apartment, where they also hung up a hand-painted banner calling the curator out as a “white supremacist Zionist” and her museum as an institution supporting “genocide.”

The NYPD said both incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.

Such incidents have prompted New York City’s Jewish community leaders to advocate for the revival of a law making public gatherings of masked individuals a crime punishable by up to 15 days in prison. The almost 200-year-old statute was rescinded in May 2020 to resolve a conflict with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that mandated face-coverings across the state in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Ms. Hochul appeared to be in favor of the idea of reinstating the anti-mask law.

“There was a ban on masks before the pandemic that you couldn’t have face coverings that didn’t serve a purpose,” she told Ms. Coates. “It was repealed at the time, but I absolutely will go back and take a look at this and see whether it can be restored because it is frightening to people.”

“You’re sitting on a subway train and someone puts on a mask like this and comes in—you don’t know if they’re going to be committing a crime, they’re going to have a gun, or whether they’re just going to be threatening or intimidating you because you are Jewish, which is exactly what happened the other day,” she continued. “Absolutely unacceptable in the State of New York.”

Among supporters of the mask ban is Assemblyman Mike Reilly, a Republican representing portions of Staten Island. He said he raised public safety concerns when the law was repealed in 2020.

“I was among those who warned that its repeal would be abused by criminals and those looking to cause mischief,” he wrote on June 13 on X. “That’s exactly what played out during the chaotic and sometimes violent protests at [Columbia University] and [New York University].”

In May, Mr. Reilly introduced a bill to ban “deceptive wearing of masks” at protests and other public assemblies. The bill is stalled in the Assembly committee.

“I implore [Gov. Hochul] to immediately convene a special session so that lawmakers can pass my bill and bring us one step closer towards the restoration of public safety,” he said.

Gov. Hochul’s stance on mask restrictions also drew criticism from public health advocates who argued that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over and that vulnerable people should be free to wear masks to prevent infection.

“This is absolutely shameful! New York has suffered so much from COVID, and COVID is not over,” Lucky Tran, a biochemist and science communicator at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, wrote on X. “We should be normalize and depoliticizing masks, not banning them.”

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