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By Julia Metraux

The day after the North Carolina legislature passed a bill restricting the use of masks, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul alarmed disability rights advocates when she announced that she was considering her own mask legislation. In an interview with CNN, Hochul indicated that such an effort to limit the use of face coverings would come in response to masked individuals “threatening or intimidating” Jewish people. Hochul’s proposal followed incidents of intimidation and vandalism, including a widely circulated video of anti-Israel protesters in a New York City subway car chanting, “Raise your hand if you’re a Zionist. This is your chance to get out.”

While Hochul indicated that masks could still be allowed if they “serve a purpose”—for example, “a surgical mask for someone who is elderly or ill”—her remarks prompted immediate concern, especially from immunocompromised people, those already living with Long Covid, and other vulnerable New Yorkers. The governor later said at a news conference on Thursday that any such mask ban would apply specifically to the subway and reiterated that there may be health exemptions.

But for some advocates—including members of Jewish community with health concerns who I spoke with—Hochul’s words were far from reassuring. Hochul didn’t explain how authorities would determine who could wear masks for health reasons, and some worried that doing so could expose them to harassment by the police. In North Carolina, Democrats in the legislature have criticized similarly vague exceptions in that state’s GOP-backed anti-masking bill, and many there argued that people of color would inevitably be targeted unfairly.

When Rikki Baker Keusch, a disabled New York-based Jewish community organizer, saw that Hochul was seriously thinking about a mask ban, they were livid. Taking Covid precautions has also become the norm in the Jewish community they are a part of in New York City. “We required everyone to test [for Covid] before Seder,” said Baker Keusch, who wears masks to protect themselves from infectious diseases during pro-Palestinian protests. Getting Covid again while at a demonstration would set back “all of the health progress I’ve barely been able to make since my last Covid infection,” Baker Keusch said.

People are far less likely to contract Covid if they wear an effective mask, with duckbill N95 masks being the most effective for preventing infections. Given the drop-off in testing, it is difficult know just how many people in New York have Covid. But data from the state shows that the age groups with the most diagnosed cases are children under one-year-old and adults over 85.

“I have to take the subway to get to my work because there are so few remote jobs anymore,” Baker Keusch added. “I’m regularly the only person who masks on the subway.”

Sharon Dolin, a New York Jewish poet, has never tested positive for Covid. Over a year ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she still takes medicine which weakens her immune system. Dolin continues to mask on public transportation, but not always indoors.

Dolin says Hochul “shouldn’t have a right to ban all masks.” Dolin did take issue with pro-Palestinian protestors wearing masks, she says, “to make it more difficult to identify them.” But a ban on masks, she worries, “definitely overlaps with people who are trying to protect their health.”

Elana Levin, a Jews For Racial & Economic Justice member who has dealt with Long Covid, was horrified to see Hochul jump on the mask ban bandwagon.

“This is in line with all of her other Covid-minimizing, anti-public health stances,” like removing masking requirements in hospitals, Levin said. “But it is still very beyond the pale.”

Levin plans to continue wearing their N95 in public but is concerned that their neighbors of color, who also continue to mask, could be targeted by the police for doing so.

Baker Keusch also worries that banning masks in the name of Jewish safety could lead to antisemitism in Covid-cautious communities. Hochul’s rhetoric “sets us up for more antisemitism,” Baker Keusch says, as some may blame “Jews for lowering Covid precautions.”

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