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Gov. Hochul Considers Ban on Face Masks on the New York City Subway, Citing Anti-Semitic Acts

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday she is considering a ban on face masks on the New York City subway system because of concerns about people protecting their identities while committing anti-Semitic acts.

Hochul, a Democrat, told reporters that the exact details of the policy are not clear, but that it would include “common sense exceptions” for health, cultural or religious reasons. Many people concerned about COVID-19 and air pollution routinely wear masks on the subway.

Hochul said she was in discussions with lawmakers about a possible bill.

At a news conference in Albany, the governor said she took action after “a group wearing masks took over a subway on Monday evening, scaring passengers and chanting things about Hitler and exterminating Jews.”

It was not clear exactly which incident she was referring to, but it could have been an amalgamation of several episodes related to pro-Palestinian demonstrations that day in Union Square Park.

Hundreds of people leaving the rally streamed into a subway station, some waving flags and banging drums, to board a train downtown. On one train, a man not wearing a mask led a small group as they chanted to other passengers, “Raise your hand if you are a Zionist,” followed by, “This is your chance to get out.”

Meanwhile, a video circulating on social media showed a confrontation that reportedly took place earlier in the day, when a man in Union Square — who was also not wearing a mask — was recorded shouting, “I wish Hitler was still here.” He would have wiped you all out.”

It was unclear whether he was involved in the protest or who he was yelling at. A group of people waving Israeli flags were also in the park at the time.

“We will not tolerate individuals using masks to avoid responsibility for criminal or threatening behavior,” Hochul said. “My team is working on a solution, but in the subway people are not allowed to hide behind a mask to commit crimes.”

New York passed a law banning face masks in public in the 19th century in response to rent protests. It was suspended in 2020 by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of a pandemic public health campaign, and masks were also made mandatory for subway passengers until September 2022.

The mask ban previously drew criticism from civil rights groups who said it was selectively enforced to break up protests where people wanted to hide their identities to avoid legal or professional repercussions.

“The Governor’s concerns about masks concealing criminal activity will not be quelled by banning anonymous peaceful protest. Mask bans were originally designed to stifle political protests and, like other laws that criminalize people, will be selectively enforced – used to arrest, doxx, surveil, and silence people of color and protesters where police disagree,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

“A mask ban would be easily violated by bad actors and if someone engages in unlawful actions, judgment should be based on the criminal behavior, not their clothing,” she said.

Hochul acknowledged that reinstating a ban would be complicated.

“We understand how complex this issue is, and we are just listening to people, meeting their needs and taking them very seriously,” she said.

Since the war between Hamas and Israel began in October, there have been hundreds of demonstrations by pro-Palestinian activists in the city, the vast majority of which have been peaceful. Participants’ wearing of masks is common, partly due to fear of police surveillance.

Mayor Eric Adams has also talked about reviving a version of previous mask bans and once suggested that retailers tell people to take them off to enter.

Wearing face coverings in public has declined since COVID-19 deaths declined, but many still use them.

“There are people who are at high risk of severe illness from a respiratory infection who may use masks in a crowded congregate setting, such as the subway, to reduce the chance of contracting an infection,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center. for health security, said via email.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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