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Charlottesville, Albemarle County prosecutors: no penalties for wearing masks

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 10:46 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Once the state of emergency in Virginia ends you can still wear a mask -- legally -- in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. That’s despite an anti-mask law that’s been on the books for decades in the commonwealth.

Both the city and county’s top prosecutors say they will not penalize anyone for wearing a mask for health safety reasons. They say there’s a handful of reasons for that decision, and it starts with our community’s health.

“We cannot have a situation where the state government encourages people to wear masks and then turns around and prosecutes them for doing what the state government asked them to do,” said Jim Hingeley, the county’s commonwealth’s attorney.

That ‘situation’ is what Hingeley is trying to avoid. He and Joe Platania, his Charlottesville counterpart, have advised police that wearing a mask for health reasons is not a crime.

“I think they’re very happy to be, to have it clarified,” Hingeley said.

That clarification is needed because Virginia law says wearing a mask is illegal. That law was put in place in the 1950s to target the Ku Klux Klan.

Hingeley says the statute does currently protect people wearing masks for health reasons, but it could be changed to provide more clarity.

“I think what we’re talking about here are really exceptional circumstances where people, as people are wearing masks to conceal their identity while they’re committing other crimes,” he said.

A legislator who may take up that issue in Richmond is 57th District Delegate Sally Hudson, a Democrat. She says there are splits in legal minds -- some attorneys think the law does protect those wearing a mask for health reasons, and others want more specific language.

“I think that we’re just going to continue to follow sound legal guidance as we try to add some additional clarity in the law,” Hudson said.

She says that she expects the governor and attorney general will issue guidance and that it won’t be a “super contentious” issue among legislators.

Virginia’s state of emergency will expire at the end of June, but health and state officials still say, please wear a mask if you are not fully vaccinated.

Now we know: there will be no legal consequences in part of our area for doing so.

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