The Centers for Disease Control and the Governor of Virginia are strongly advising everyone who needs to venture out in public during the coronavirus pandemic to wear a face mask to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. The United States Surgeon General went as far as creating a video demonstrating how to make your own DIY mask at home due to the low supply of masks across the country. But is it legal to cover your face in public in Virginia?
Generally, Virginia law criminalizes the wearing of masks in public. Virginia Code § 18.2-422 prohibits anyone over age 16 from wearing any mask, hood, or other device that hides a substantial portion of the face or conceals the identity of the wearer, if this is done with the intent to conceal one’s identity. You may be surprised to learn that this offense is punishable as a Class 6 felony with a punishment range of up to five years.
But there are exceptions to the prohibition on face masks in public. Virginia law allows the wearing of masks in public for persons:
- wearing traditional holiday costumes;
- engaged in professions or activities requiring protective masks, such as doctors, nurses, and carpenters;
- engaged in a theatrical production or masquerade ball; or
- wearing a mask for bona fide medical reasons upon:
- the advice of a licensed physician and while carrying an affidavit specifying the medical necessity; or
- the declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor in response to a public health emergency where an express waiver of this section is made.
Put simply, it is not illegal in Virginia to cover one’s face in public for a legitimate medical reason, including to protect oneself and others against the spread of COVID-19. Virginia State Police has also issued guidance on its social media pages clarifying this distinction: it remains unlawful to wear a mask with the intent to conceal one’s identity, but not for a bona fide medical reason.
So go ahead and wear that surgical mask or DIY medical mask if you can get ahold of one. But maybe don’t walk into a bank wearing a ski mask and gloves.