Governor proposes mask ban on NYC subway to combat antisemitic incidents

Kathy Hochul cites incident in which anti-Israel protesters with face coverings took over subway cars, but admits challenges remain in formulating policy

Illustrative: People are pictured in a subway train in the Manhattan borough of New York on April 1, 2024. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
Illustrative: People are pictured in a subway train in the Manhattan borough of New York on April 1, 2024. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

ALBANY, New York — Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday that she is considering a ban on face masks in the New York City subway system due to concerns about people shielding their identities while committing antisemitic acts.

Hochul, a Democrat, told reporters the exact details of the policy are not clear but it would contain “common-sense exemptions” 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 talks with lawmakers on potentially crafting a bill.

At a news conference in Albany, the governor said she was moved to act after “a group donning masks took over a subway car, scaring riders and chanting things about Hitler and wiping out Jews” on Monday night.

It was not clear exactly what incident she was referring to, but it could have been a conflation of different episodes related to pro-Palestinian demonstrations that day in Union Square Park.

Hundreds of people leaving the rally flooded into a subway station, some waving flags and banging on drums, to get on trains headed downtown. On one train, a man who was not wearing a mask led a small group in chanting “Raise your hands if you’re a Zionist” to other passengers, followed by, “This is your chance to get out.”

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

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

“We will not tolerate individuals using masks to evade responsibility for criminal or threatening behavior,” Hochul said. “My team is working on a solution, but on a subway, people should not be able to hide behind a mask to commit crimes.”

New York passed a law banning face masks in public in the 1800s as a response to protests over rent. 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 riders until September 2022.

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

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters in the Red Room at the state Capitol, July 1, 2022, in Albany, NY. (AP/Hans Pennink)

“The Governor’s concerns about masks disguising criminal activity won’t be quelled by banning anonymous peaceful protest. Mask bans were originally developed to quash political protests and, like other laws that criminalize people, they will be selectively enforced — used to arrest, doxx, surveil, and silence people of color and protestors the police disagree with,” 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’s engages in unlawful actions, the judgement should be made based on the criminal behavior, not their attire,” she said.

Hochul acknowledged that reinstating a ban would be complicated.

“We understand how complex this issue is, and we’re just listening to people and addressing 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 and anti-Israel activists in the city, most of them peaceful. However, many have included speech regarded as antisemitic or threatening to Jews, such as calls for an intifada — referring to the pair of violent uprisings by Palestinians — in the late 1980s and early 2000s, and there have been reports of assaults on Jews or Israel supporters outside the rallies.

An anti-Israel protester wearing a Hamas headband gestures toward pro-Israel counter-protesters at Baruch College in New York City, June 6, 2024. (Luke Tress via JTA)

On Monday, anti-Israel demonstrators rallied outside a Manhattan exhibit dedicated to the Nova outdoor rave massacre, where more than 360 people were killed. Mask-wearing participants held a banner calling for repeat attacks and waved flags belonging to terror groups, including Hamas which carried out the devastating October 7 attack on southern Israel.

Participants say mask-wearing is common due to fears about police surveillance.

Mayor Eric Adams has also talked about reviving some version of past mask bans and once suggested that shopkeepers tell people they have to take them off to enter.

The wearing of face coverings in public has declined since COVID-19 deaths abated, but many still use them.

“There are people that are at high risk for severe disease from a respiratory infection who may be using masks in a crowded congregated setting such as the subway to decrease their chance of acquiring an infection,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said via email.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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