State repeals almost 200-year-old anti-mask law amid virus pandemic

New York's attorney general has praised the repeal of an archaic loitering law which made it a criminal violation for groups of people to wear masks in public.

Letitia James said it was "common sense policy" to repeal the nearly two-century-old statute, as it presented a "clear conflict of law" with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive order in April requiring that people wear face coverings in public to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

New York's appealed an old law prohibiting people in large groups from wearing face masks. A woman here is seen wearing one in NYC. Source: Getty Images

"Even if it is difficult to imagine a police department enforcing, a prosecutor charging, or a judge upholding such a charge during the COVD-19 crisis, we should not tolerate a situation where following the law is dangerous," Ms James said in a press release.

Dan Quart, a member of the New York State Assembly, noted that "not only is the continued criminalisation of face coverings confusing for all New Yorkers, it exposes men of colour to police harassment".

The anti-mask law's origins "go back to a statute passed in 1845 to suppress armed uprisings by tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley who were using disguises to attack law enforcement officers," according to the Adirondack Almanack website.

In 2011, New York City police used the law to charge Occupy Wall Street demonstrators donning Guy Fawkes masks.

The statute made "being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration, loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked or disguised, or knowingly permits or aids persons so masked or disguised to congregate in a public place" a criminal violation.

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