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Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has questions about Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposed mask ban

Commuters, one wearing a mask, ride the subway in New York on June 14, 2024.
Seth Wenig
The Associated Press
Commuters, one wearing a mask, ride the subway in New York, Friday, June 14, 2024. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says she is considering a ban on face masks in the New York City subway system, following what she described as concerns over people shielding their identities while committing antisemitic acts.

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Monday that he has questions about Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to reinstate a pre-pandemic ban on people wearing masks in public.

Hochul has said that she’s considering revising and reinstating an 1845 law that bans wearing masks in public in response to increased incidents of crime and threatening behavior in the New York City subways and other places where perpetrators wear masks to conceal their identity.

She first made the comments during a June 12 interview on CNN when she was asked about some Jewish leaders’ call to ban masks in light of the rash of protests against the Israel-Hamas war, where many demonstrators wear them.

She has since repeated her views, saying she won’t tolerate individuals using masks to evade responsibility for those behaviors.

“People who are wearing masks were able to commit crimes because they're now undetected,” Hochul said on June 13. “It's a challenge for law enforcement.”

The mask law was repealed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Heastie said the governor has reached out to him on the issue, but he has some concerns, including how to carve out exceptions for legitimate mask-wearing, like during a pandemic or if someone wants to keep themselves or others safe from germs.

“She did raise it with me, and those were pretty much my questions,” he said.

But Heastie said he’s open to trying to work out a solution.

“I think it's a conversation we need to have. People have found a way to go around the system of laws that's in place,” Heastie said. “You’ve always got to try to counteract that. But there’s challenges with that, for religious reasons, for health reasons.”

Hochul said she does not envision outlawing surgical masks for people who are sick or when there’s a contagious outbreak. And she said those masks only partially cover the face.

“A surgical mask, as we came very used to seeing, doesn't cover most of your face. It covers a portion of your face,” Hochul said. “Some of the masks that have been used in the assault on the subway train, that covers everything but your eyes. So there's a distinction.”

Hochul and Heastie are not ruling out a return to Albany before next January to address the mask issue, but they said it’s too early to make any definitive plans.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.