A county in Oregon has reversed part of a policy that exempted non-white people from the requirement of wearing a mask in public under a mandatory directive designed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The reversal follows racist backlash, with officials in Lincoln County saying in a statement that they’ve received “unprecedented” vitriol and “horrifically racist commentary” that has turned a policy they intended as a way to protect into one “that now harms” because of “threats and racist statements.”
Lincoln County originally issued the directive in mid-June in response to a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a Pacific Seafood plant in Newport, reported The Oregonian. The policy excluded non-white people, giving them the option of not having to wear masks considering potential concerns over possible racial profiling.
The exemption to the policy that was specific to non-whites stated, “people of color who have heightened concerns about racial profiling and harassment due to wearing face coverings in public” did not have to wear a mask, per ABC News. Other exemptions related to children under age 12 and people with certain health or medical issues or disabilities.
The policy seemed to do more harm than good, with Lincoln County reportedly receiving angry phone calls and emails from those who felt the exemption discriminated against whites. County officials also revealed they received calls from Black and other non-white people who were concerned about increased discrimination due to the rule. That’s according to a statement the county released on Wednesday, June 24. “The County also received several calls from leadership from our communities of color asking us to revise the policy – it was not providing them protection, but instead making them possible targets for more hate,” it read.
“We are shocked and appalled at the volume of horrifically racist commentary we have received regarding this policy exception,” the statement continued. “The vitriol that county leadership, staff, and community partners, have been subjected to is unprecedented. All this only a month after George Floyd’s death.”
Lincoln County’s population is 89.6 percent white and only 0.9 percent Black, according to Census data. The state’s population is 86.7 percent white and 2.2 percent Black.
“The expressions of racism regarding the exception has created a ripple of fear throughout our communities of color,” the statement continued. “The very policy meant to protect them, is now making them a target for further discrimination and harassment.”
The statement encouraged white residents to place themselves in other people’s shoes and think beyond the feelings of their rights being violated.
“We would encourage you to think less about the possibility of your rights being violated and think instead of the heightened feelings of risk that people of color in your neighborhoods daily endure,” the message read.
The policy’s other exemptions remain in place.