Did you know that wearing a mask in public in Virginia is illegal? Just like in France…
There are exceptions — such as for holiday costumes or work safety gear — but a cyclist dressed for a cold commute could, technically, be charged with a Class 6 felony! Naturally we’re concerned about this, as a discouragement to winter cycling, or an invitation for police to harass cyclists.
HB1810 would amend the current code section 18.2-422, with an exception for cold weather gear. A team of cyclists went to discuss it with delegates at a committee meeting this morning. Following are reports from VBF board members Michael Gilbert and Bud Vye.
Four of us – all motor vehicle drivers, cyclists, and one also a motorcyclist spoke in favor of the legislation. Delegate McQuinn amended it to ensure that “outdoors” was specifically added so the amended version read, “…including, during cold weather outdoors, cold weather gear that partially covers the face“. After accepting the amendment, one legislator attempted to kill the bill outright, by saying cyclists are already covered under physical safety, and that he further could not believe anyone would be charged with a felony under this law. Legislator Watkins made the point that she wants to be able to legally wear a mask when she enjoys skiing, and that it was not covered. At this point, the body yielded and asked for public input to determine the root of why the amendment was requested to begin with.
I spoke in favor of the bill, and explained that I had been stopped and told I was in violation of the law punishable by a felony. Legislator Bell asked if the mention of possibility of being charged with a felony was the initial cause for stoppage, or if there was another cause. I suspect this was to determine if it was mentioned casually or if this is something Officers are enforcing as an actual felony. I want to be clear that Legislator Bell was not in any way demeaning or threatening, and even came outside afterwards to talk to me further about the bill. I went on to note that although I had not been charged with a felony, the mere possibility was enough of an imposition [on liberty] for me to be unable to enjoy our beautiful Commonwealth, commute to work under freedom of choice of transportation, or even visit the historic battlefields without fear of becoming a felon. I also went on to say that though I am a cyclist, I am also a driver of a motor vehicle. Despite the fact that cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities of motor vehicle drivers, I don’t have the comfort of being protected by a box or with a heater, and the equivalent to my vehicle would be a face mask. This all seemed to resonate well with the body, and one legislator specifically said he did not want to impose on the liberty of law abiding citizens.
Counsel (Cohker I believe is the spelling) on site brought up a point that was made within VBF: that was physical safety and physical comfort are two different things. That counsel did specifically say that as the current enacted law reads, he believed that an individual wearing a mask that covers a substantial portion of the face, even to protect from weather (such as a cyclist), could still be charged as a Class 6 Felony and that the charge would be upheld. This made many delegates uncomfortable.
There was some technical debate about weather and what constituted cold weather and temperature and so on (e.g. 45 degrees?). The bill then proceeded to be “tabled” which, to the untrained ear, may sound like it’s being paused momentarily, but that actually means the bill is killed until the next legislative session. I am hopeful that we are able, between now and next legislative session, to tune the language. This bill was originally drafted to combat the KKK (I was told). If we are able to tune the language so that those engaged in sporting activities such as cyclists, hunters, skiiers, and so on, cannot be prosecuted as felons while also balancing and allowing Police Officers to conduct routine patrol, then we have some winning legislation.
…I got downstairs to the House Courts of Justice SubCommittee1 too late to hear the discussion on, or testify, on HB1810 the exception to punishment for wearing a face mask bill. When I got home, I found that Michael Gilbert had posted a thorough report on how it went, although he didn’t clearly state that the bill had been Tabled (which, except in very unusual cases, means that it is dead for this session).
I stayed around to the end of the meeting, after which I had a chance to talk to Del. Bell (from Charlottesville), who had chaired the meeting, and two other committee members. It seems that this Face Mask law goes back to Ku Klux Klan days, and the law enforcement people think it has real value in preventing hold ups. Del. Bell and the Committee members recognize the need for some exceptions, including for bicycling in the winter, and are willing to consider language that “will not open up Pandora’s Box and be an excuse used by hold up men”. Until they see such language they are unwilling to modify the law. They also asked me if I knew of any instances where cyclists had been stopped or charged by law enforcement for wearing a mask, and I had to reply that I hadn’t. Again, any suggestions from our lawyers, or others, sound as though they would receive consideration.
So while “face mask law reform” is probably dead for this season, it will undoubtedly be back: this law treads very close to, if not on, some basic rights and freedoms that Americans are passionate about.