You Should Wear a Mask in Public (But in Georgia, it’s illegal.)

With the recent coronavirus pandemic bringing America to a general halt, Georgians are now facing uncertainty as they transition to life perpetually-at-home. Of course, the need to go get groceries or the doctors requires us to leave the house. Out of an abundance of caution, at the advice of our government, as well as other countries’ medical findings, people have started wearing masks when venturing outside. Cloth masks, surgical masks, respirators, or even bandanas- something is better than nothing. But what many Georgians don’t know is that, by leaving the house and wearing something that covers their face… they are breaking the law and committing a misdemeanor.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This isn’t legal advice. Rather, it’s my opinion based on a layman’s reading of Georgia law.

GA Code § 16-11-38 (2018) spells it out quite clearly:

(a) A person is guilty of a misdemeanor when he wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer and is upon any public way or public property or upon the private property of another without the written permission of the owner or occupier of the property to do so.

(b) This Code section shall not apply to:

(1) A person wearing a traditional holiday costume on the occasion of the holiday;

(2) A person lawfully engaged in trade and employment or in a sporting activity where a mask is worn for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer, or because of the nature of the occupation, trade, or profession, or sporting activity;

(3) A person using a mask in a theatrical production including use in Mardi Gras celebrations and masquerade balls; or

(4) A person wearing a gas mask prescribed in emergency management drills and exercises or emergencies.

Let’s eyeball the exceptions to see if they apply:

  1. It’s not Halloween.
  2. We’re not playing sports. It seems that this exception could be made for nurses, store clerks, etc. given that they need to protect themselves as long as they’re on the job
  3.  This isn’t Broadway
  4. We’re not wearing gas masks, nor were we given any by the State.

If Joe Bob and Jane Jill go walk to the local Publix from their home on the sidewalk, and they are wearing a mask of any sort, they could both be subject to arrest by the State of Georgia under GA Code § 16-11-38– a misdemeanor.

More interestingly, this particular law does not accommodate for religious exceptions. Consider our Muslim peers- the more conservative Muslim sects have women wear partial or full veils, or completely conceal the face. This means that this law could be argued as a blatant infringement of the First Amendment’s ‘free exercise‘ clause.

Another case to consider is privacy- with the rise of cameras in use to track our movements, face tracking is another way the State tries to capture our movements and activity on top of license plate scanners. Wearing a mask is a potential method for preserving and taking back our right to privacy and free movement.

It’s difficult to find history of this law online. The earliest reference of it I was able to find was a reading from the Georgia senate of an amendment (SB 482) but was never passed. Given the references of wearing a “mask” or “hood” as being illegal, I would not be surprised if there were racial undertones to this law’s history (concerning hate groups and gang violence, etc.) 

With the concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, religious expression, and privacy, it’s time for this part of Georgia code to be amended or removed entirely.

 

“2018 Georgia Code :: Title 16 – Crimes and Offenses :: Chapter 11 – Offenses Against Public Order and Safety :: Article 2 – Offenses Against Public Order :: § 16-11-38. Wearing Mask, Hood, or Device Which Conceals Identity of Wearer.” Justia Law, law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2018/title-16/chapter-11/article-2/section-16-11-38/.

“SB 482 – Mask, Hood Concealing Identity – Exceptions Regarding Misdemeanor.” SB 482 – Mask, Hood Concealing Identity – Exceptions Regarding Misdemeanor, Georgia Senate, 15 May 2000, www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/Archives/19992000/leg/fulltext/sb482.htm.