The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, although unintentionally, have managed to throw gasoline on the fires of racism currently burning across the U.S.
Readers likely noticed that our county’s decision regarding face coverings made national news this week. Media outlets like the New York Post, CBS News, CNN, Newsweek and USA Today have run stories about the decision by our county commissioners to exclude people of color from the requirement to wear face masks while in public places.
At the direction of the county commissioners, the county health department last week issued a directive 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. There were some exemptions noted, such as persons with health conditions, children under the age of 12 and people with disabilities preventing them from using a face covering.
But it was the fourth exemption that created the stir heard across the country this week. It excluded “people of color worried about racial profiling and harassment due to wearing face coverings in public.”
The directive had been in place for a week, but it went viral after the New York Post ran a story with the headline: “Oregon county issues face mask order that exempts non-white people.”
By Wednesday, after reportedly receiving a large volume of angry emails and phone calls, the county commissioners reversed course and eliminated that particular exception, saying it "does more harm than good."
The county also issued a public statement on Wednesday. “We included the last protection for those within our communities of color who historically, and often personally, found themselves the victims of harassment and violence.” They also stated, “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. Let us be very clear. The directive and policy were meant to protect. Threats and racist statements turned it into a policy that now harms.”
It’s abundantly clear this issue has, indeed, created a firestorm that has done far more harm than good. While we believe our county commissioners were trying to do the right thing here, we also believe they fell well short of the mark on this one.
Of course, there’s nothing like the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, but we would like to believe that were the county commissioners given the opportunity for a “do-over,” they would think their decision through more carefully, consider all possible ramifications and make a different choice.