Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is facing intense criticism from some Democratic lawmakers over recent remarks in which he suggested Hispanics are less likely to wear masks and social distance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In an audio clip posted online by Democratic super PAC American Bridge, Tillis, who is up for reelection this year, said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday, “Just wear the mask out of respect. Now I will tell you I’m not a scientist and I’m not a statistician, but one of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44% of the positive cases, and we do have some concerns that in the Hispanic population we’ve seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”
Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, responded to his comments on Twitter by saying, “This racist BS needs to stop.”
“Latinos & African Americans are most at risk, dying at higher rates — and STILL going to work every day b/c they are essential workers,” she tweeted. “Meanwhile, Republican colleagues in Congress are the ones who refuse to use masks. @ThomTillis — cut the crap.”
Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, also a member of the Hispanic Caucus, tweeted, “No…. we are the essential workers that were forced to go to work. We pulled the food, slaughtered the animals, packaged the food that fed America. They did it at barely minimum wage and went back homes to big families under one roof bc that is all they could afford.”
Gallego wrote in a follow up tweet, “I know because I did it. Senator Tillis could never do one full shift at a meat packing factory. Respect the people that feed America.”
Public health experts have been clear that wearing a mask and social distancing are key ways to limit the transmission of Covid-19.
Some high-profile Republican leaders, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have repeatedly emphasized the importance of mask wearing, while President Donald Trump, in contrast, rarely urges Americans to wear masks.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June found that a higher percentage of Hispanic adults said that they wore masks most of the time in stores compared to White adults.
Pew reported that 62% of White adults said they had worn a mask in stores and businesses “all or most of the time” over the past month. In contrast, 74% of Hispanic adults, 80% of Asian adults and 69% of Black adults said the same.
Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the Tillis campaign, responded to a CNN request for comment with a statement in which he said that the senator has “been clear that not enough North Carolinians of all backgrounds have been wearing masks and has consistently advocated that all his constituents do so.”
Unlike a number of GOP elected officials in the state, Tillis supported North Carolina’s stay-at-home order implemented by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Amid the pandemic, Tillis has stressed the importance of mask wearing and social distancing to contain the spread, and has previously expressed concern that there remains a significant number of people in the state not taking those steps.
Romeo pointed to comments from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and other health experts emphasizing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the state’s Hispanic population.
“The data is very clear that Covid-19 is having a dramatically disproportionate impact on Hispanic Latinx North Carolinians, as it is across the country,” Cohen said at a press conference last month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that some members of racial and ethnic minority groups face heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 and experiencing severe illness due to “long-standing systemic health and social inequalities.” According to CDC data, Hispanic or Latinx individuals have a rate of hospitalization from Covid-19 that is roughly four times that of non-Hispanic Whites.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release last month that “many people in Hispanic/LatinX communities provide essential services and work in industries North Carolina relies upon, such as construction, child care and food processing. Often, this work is in environments where social distancing can be challenging, health insurance is not provided and for a sick person, staying home could create a significant financial burden. These are all factors that may be contributing to the high rate of COVID-19 spread among Hispanic/LatinX communities.”
Dr. Viviana S. Martinez-Bianchi, an associate professor at Duke University, raised concerns during the same press conference about “the rising number of Covid-19 in the Latinx community.”
“Latinx workers - you’re essential to the economy of North Carolina,” Martinez-Bianchi said, adding, “The transmission of coronavirus happens while working shoulder to shoulder all day in your jobs in the breakrooms and in the cars in which you travel together to work without wearing a mask and from there to your homes and to your friends, at times whole families contracting the virus. So we are now in a very serious situation in which every person in the Latinx community has to take their health as their responsibility and fight this dangerous virus. The authorities can implement measures, but if we are not aware of the importance of wearing the mask, keeping our distance and washing our hands, any measure by the authorities will be useless.”
Romeo said in the statement from the campaign that “Senator Tillis shares the same concerns that Secretary Mandy Cohen and Doctor Viviana S. Martinez-Bianchi have about how the Latino community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in North Carolina.”
Romeo went on to say, “The community faces significant challenges, including multi generational households that make it tougher to social distance, and the increased exposure risk for essential workers on the frontlines who are keeping our economy running. The government at all levels should assist the community in the fight to beat the virus and promote ways to keep residents safe and healthy, which is Senator Tillis’ priority.”
CNN has not seen video or a transcript of the entire town hall event.
According to a transcript provided by the senator’s campaign of the exchange from the virtual town hall in which Tillis made the remarks that have now generated criticism, the senator was first asked a question about what can be done about people who don’t wear masks.
The senator responded, “I can tell you that this has been a frustration of mine” and said the day that the CDC recommended the use of facial coverings, “I started wearing it. And back then I was in the minority.”
Tillis was then asked why police are able to refuse to enforce mask wearing. The senator was not specifically asked about the Hispanic population in North Carolina.
As part of a lengthy answer, Tillis responded, “I’ve had a lot of people early in the process when I was saying wear a mask, wash your hands, use face sanitizer, don’t go out unless you need to - had a lot of people say that that was ridiculous and I know because I’m going to do a poll here in a minute and I’ll see how many people I’m going to make mad on this call. I said, ‘guys, these are not politicians telling you what to do,’” before saying, “the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44% of the positive cases” and “we do have some concerns that in the Hispanic population we have seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”
The senator went on to say, “I don’t know if we’d ever have enough police officers to go into convenience stores, grocery stores and cite people for doing it, but I really hope we don’t have to get to that point. To me, the doctors are asking us to do things that will improve our public health and we just need to do it because the sooner we have more people doing it, the sooner we will see the downward trend on the spread and if we wait then we have to accept the consequences for our actions.”