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Mask Benefits and Virginia’s Law Against Them

photo of cloth medical and n95 masks
(Photo: Charles Fishburne/VPM)

During COVID-19, a Virginia law against wearing masks has been halted. But that could change as soon as June 30, when the current state of emergency in the Commonwealth is set to expire. Experts tout the benefits of masking up, the possible legal repercussions and what role the state should play.

Masking has been key to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus and saving lives during the pandemic. Dr. Larry Schwartz, chairs Virginia Commonwealth University’s division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology.

"Not only does it work for COVID, it also works for influenza,” Schwartz said. “There does seem to be a clear benefit in reducing the viral load that one is exposed to when there are droplets or aerosols in the air — and reducing the viral load means that there are fewer people that are going to get significantly infected.” 

Schwartz said masks are also beneficial in cutting down symptoms and side-effects from environmental allergens, including asthma and congestion. 

"For a long time, I've recommended that patients wear masks when they're cutting the grass or working in the yard or vacuuming the home if they're allergic to the things that might be in that environment,” Schwartz said. "Pollens that are in the air that people are allergic to or the particles that get shed from animals or dust mites — those will get filtered. They're larger than the viruses, so, the reduction in the allergy load is even higher than for viral particles.” 

Darryl Brown, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said the state’s anti-masking statute, a class six felony, was created to further criminalize terrorism. 

“The law’s original purpose, after all, was to prohibit mask-wearing by Ku Klux Klan members and other potential criminals or domestic terrorists who wear masks to display messages or conceal their identities,” Brown said. 

The law only applies to people aged 16 and older, who mask up with the intent to conceal their identities. Exceptions to the mask ban include:

  • Masking as part of traditional holiday costumes. 
  • Professions or activities that require a protective mask. 
  • And, wearing a mask for medical purposes – but only when accompanied with an affidavit from a licensed physician or osteopath stating the need to do so. 

Police have discretion about whether to arrest someone or issue a citation to enforce this statute just as they do all others. But, Brown said, like any law, there’s concern about biased or uneven enforcement — and police using it to target people of color.

"I’d be very surprised to see the police enforcing the anti-mask law for people wearing medical masks, especially when we, collectively, will not be free of COVID-19 risks for some time,” Brown said. “That doesn't mean some police officers, maybe even some prosecutors won’t be overzealous and try to enforce it.” 

Brown said if officers were to take action against people for wearing medical masks, the charges wouldn’t hold up in court. He added that the governor, attorney general and state officials should encourage law enforcement leadership to advise against the overuse of this statute — particularly during a pandemic.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam said he’s committed to ensuring that people who aren’t vaccinated or are uncomfortable letting go of their masks can still wear them if they choose. However, the administration is still exploring ways to make that happen.