NEWPORT — Lincoln County officials say their effort to acknowledge racism in a voluntary face covering directive backfired when national media coverage of the policy prompted harassment — and may have had the reverse effect of making people of color more likely to be targeted.
The controversy touches on two conversations in which the whole nation is consumed about race and public health, and the intersection of the two.
At the direction of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, Lincoln County Public Health Director Rebecca Austen issued a directive last week advising that “all individuals in Lincoln County shall wear face coverings over their noses and mouths” when in indoor, public settings or in outdoor settings where 6 feet of physical distancing could not be achieved.
The move was effectively a strong message intended to educate the public on the effectiveness of face coverings in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and promote their use — it was not a legal mandate, and in fact included language specifying that there would be no formal enforcement. “Violation of the directive does not constitute or create grounds for private persons or public employees, including law enforcement, to stop, detain, issue a citation or undertake any other enforcement action…against a person or persons who do not comply,” the text reads.
The directive also included four categories of exempt people: persons with health conditions “that preclude or are exacerbated by wearing a face covering,” children under the age of 12, “person with disabilities that prevent them from using a face covering,” and “people of color who have heightened concerns about racial profiling and harassment due to wearing face coverings in public.” The language of the last exemption is identical to that used in Oregon Health Authority guidance, which says businesses must take those concerns into account when implementing policies that require customers to wear masks.
On Tuesday, June 23, the national press, starting with the New York Post and followed by Newsweek, CNN, CBS and others, all ran headlines with essentially the same declaration, that an Oregon county had mandated face coverings for white people only. Donald Trump Jr., son of President Donald Trump, tweeted an article about the directive, characterizing it as “the definition of racism.”
While the directive had already been in place for one week, it took less than 24 hours of national attention on the policy for county commissioners to change course. A revised directive that omits the exception for people of color was issued Wednesday, June 24, and accompanied by a statement signed by every member of the board of commissioners, as well as the sheriff, district attorney, county counsel and the health director, detailing the county’s rationale.
According to the statement, the exemption was included “for those within our communities of color who historically and often personally found themselves the victims of harassment and violence. After last month’s protests, the national attention given to issues of racism, police tactics and inequity, we felt this last exception would be embraced and understood as a small effort to start addressing the realities some of our neighbors deal with on a daily basis.”
However, the statement reads, officials were “shocked and appalled at the volume of horrifically racist commentary (they) received regarding this policy exception.” Casey Miller, the county’s public information officer, said the volume was so great — hundreds of emails — he was still sorting through it to parse unrelated concerns from a deluge of angry messages.
Much of the commentary viewed by the News-Times accused county officials themselves of being racists for singling out race within a policy, some of which was laced with profanities and ugly personal attacks. Some questioned the wisdom of the measure given the documented disproportionate effect of the pandemic on communities of color. One message threatened anyone who even attempted to make the sender wear a mask, saying “I’m white, have not, and will not wear a mask. If anyone from the county approaches me and tells me to put on a mask, I will beat you into brain dead vegetable status.”
Board Chair Kaety Jacobsen said some communications she’d received had been overtly racist, like one that said they should “make brown people wear masks because they’re the ones that brought the virus here,” and some came from people self identifying as white supremacists.
Commissioners said the decision to revise the directive was not driven by the anger directed at them but by fears expressed by people of color that it “was not providing them protection, but instead making them possible targets for more hate.”
The directive now names only medical conditions, disabilities and age as excepting factors. Lincoln County’s action is separate from and superseded by Gov. Kate Brown’s order that went into effect Wednesday, June 24, which mandates indoor face coverings in seven Oregon counties, including Lincoln. It has the same three exemptions and is an enforceable requirement, the governor said.