“The expressions of racism regarding the exception has created a ripple of fear throughout our communities of color. The very policy meant to protect them, is now making them a target for further discrimination and harassment,” Lincoln County leaders said Wednesday.
The county requires most residents to wear face coverings in public settings, indoors or outdoors. The locale, which is overwhelmingly White, had been one of the first places in the United States to exempt non-White residents if they fear harassment.
Also exempt are people with disabilities or medical conditions whose breathing would be obstructed by a mask and children under 12, though children ages 2 through 12 are still encouraged to cover their faces.
But following the announcement, county leaders received unprecedented vitriol and “horrifically racist commentary” that turned the policy into one that makes people of color more of a target for harassment and discrimination, the statement said.
Lincoln County, home to nearly 50,000 residents, is almost 90% White and less than 1% Black, census data shows. But it’s also home to the Siletz Reservation and a growing population of Latino residents.
The county’s exemption diverged from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s mask guidance, which requires residents in seven counties to wear masks in indoor public spaces without exemptions for people of color.
When the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in April that all Americans wear masks in public, many Black and Latino Americans didn’t feel comfortable following its advice. In their cases, wearing a mask could make others perceive them as criminal, activists and educators told CNN in April.
“This (wearing a mask) seems like a reasonable response unless you just sort of take American society out of it,” Trevor Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University and a Black man, told CNN. “When you can’t do that, you’re basically telling people to look dangerous given racial stereotypes that are out there.”
It’s a “lose-lose” scenario, ReNika Moore of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program told CNN in April, because either way, Black Americans feel endangered.
And they’ve shouldered the brunt of the coronavirus. Initial data shows that Black Americans are dying at disproportionately higher rates than other ethnicities. The American Public Media Research Lab estimated that Black Americans’ Covid-19 mortality rate is 2.3 times higher than the rate for White and Asian Americans.
The CDC’s advice came almost two months before protests erupted around the US after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police, though many demonstrators have worn masks while protesting.
CNN’s Madeline Holcombe and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.