Roy Cooper vetoes Free the Smiles bill that would end mandatory masks in NC schools

By Theresa Opeka, CJ Staff

Raleigh, NC – Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed the Free the Smiles Act. The bipartisan measure would have blocked mandatory mask policies in N.C. schools.

It’s Cooper’s second veto this year and a record-extending 71st veto since he took office in 2017.

“I have encouraged local boards to lift mask mandates, and they are doing it across the state with the advice of health officials who see that COVID metrics are declining and vaccinations are increasing,” Cooper said in an official statement connected to the veto. “The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities, and that is still the right course. Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future.”

Unmasked students at a high school basketball game. (photo by Gene Galin)

Cooper announced a loosening of school mask requirements during a Feb. 17 news conference. At almost the exact same time, lawmakers were taking the final votes on the Free the Smiles Act, Senate Bill 173. The N.C. House approved the measure, 76-42, with seven of Cooper’s fellow Democrats joining Republicans in support of the bill. Two Democrats joined Republicans as the Senate approved the bill, 28-17.

Both chambers approved the Free the Smiles legislation with at least a three-fifths majority. That’s the threshold they would need to reach in a vote to override a gubernatorial veto.

But legislative Democrats have been unwilling to stick with the Republicans in veto override votes since 2019. That was the first year in Cooper’s administration after the GOP lost veto-proof supermajorities. Before the Free the Smiles veto, Cooper had a streak of 42 consecutive vetoes without a successful override.

The veto prompted responses from leading legislative Republicans.

“I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has vetoed this common-sense bill,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. “All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats.”

“Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates,” Moore added. “Return this decision back to parents.”

“It’s past time to return the decision-making power to parents who can best evaluate their family’s needs,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga. “Gov. Cooper continues to work against parents and ignore the science that shows children are at a lower risk for developing severe illness but are having development setbacks because of masking. That science hasn’t changed for months. The only thing that has changed is the political science, and Gov. Cooper knows that.”

Kody Kinsley, state health secretary, said if trends continue to improve, starting March 7 schools and other low-risk settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities.

Lee, Wayne, Chatham, Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Franklin, Union, and Sampson counties have already moved to mask-optional policies, with Edgecombe and Northampton counties scheduled to consider mask-optional policies later this month.

Wake County Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are holding out until March 7 to make masks optional. Ironically, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has had the largest loss of enrolled students across for the 2020-21 school year, as measured by average daily membership in schools, according to a report from Carolina Demography. The CMS loss was 8,055 students. Wake County was second with 4,234 fewer students.

Parents are becoming increasingly frustrated about not having a say in whether their children should be wearing masks, among other decisions. Rallies have been held in the past two weeks, letting officials know it’s past time for mandates to end.

Amy Marshall, who heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance, said there’s no reason to wait given the fact that both the House and Senate passed the Free the Smiles Act with a veto-proof majority. “The legislature revealed the will of the people on the school mask mandate issue,” she said.

“If you drag this out, you will cause further disruptions and more learning loss,” Marshall added.

Critics say wearing masks not only hurts children’s learning abilities, but it also affects them socially and mentally.