It wasn’t hard to find Lincoln County’s mask directive. A summary — in large font — featured prominently on the COVID-19 web page of the Oregon county’s health department. It was topped with a link to the full text of the order. 

The policy was nearly identical to one instituted three weeks prior without much fuss, governing Lincoln County’s courthouses and other public buildings. And it looked a lot like the ones six other Oregon counties issued after Gov. Kate Brown mandated masks be worn in seven counties where COVID-19 was rising sharply.

The one notable difference between Lincoln County’s policy and the others: it clearly spelled out something that the other six counties only implied: that “people of color who have heightened concerns about racial profiling and harassment due to wearing face coverings in public” are exempt from the rule.

 And that’s what people focused on.

They sent emails. They called. They texted. County commissioners and public health officials, already overwhelmed trying to handle a growing outbreak in the small coastal county, found their phones unusable. They set up a separate line just to handle the complaints.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh god, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic with an active outbreak going on.’ Our staff is tired, we have a lot of people we’re trying to care for, and we’re calling our legal counsel saying, ‘Oh my god, what is going on,’” said Lincoln County Commission Chair Kaety Jacobson.

The calls and comments fell into two main categories:

“There were people saying we were racist against white people,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Claire Hall. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, “We got messages of, to the effect, ‘Why are you participating in a genocide plot to kill people of color?’”

They also received threats. Jacobson didn’t want to share what those threats said, not word for word, “but let’s just say there’s a security camera on the roof of my house that wasn’t there before.”

Headlines about Lincoln County spread across the country. Even some international publications picked up the story. One of the first to get picked up by a major news organization declared: “Oregon county issues coronavirus mask mandate, but only for white people.”

“No. Absolutely not. No,” said Jacobson, another Lincoln County commissioner, “This isn’t the exact wording here, but what the directive said, was that if people of color felt that wearing the mask would put them at risk, there was an exemption for that.”

‘I’m Black. I’m already worried’

The road to mask use has been contentious in Oregon and across the county, and has become increasingly politicized.

Seventy-five miles away from Lincoln City, in the Portland area, push back against masks came from three sides: community advocates and people of color, who said that racism made masks unsafe for many people of color, particularly Black men, and that mandating them would lead to over policing; people who felt a mask mandate was unnecessary and infringed upon their freedoms; and conspiracy theorists who think, with no scientific basis and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that masks cause the wearers to suffocate on CO2 and die. 

But it’s been demonstrated — as millions of mask-wearing Americans will attest — that masks do not suffocate healthy adult humans. And other than social distancing and lockdowns, which many conservatives also oppose, masks are the most effective means of reducing transmission of COVID-19.

The risks some people of color face when wearing masks face, however, are very real.

“I’m Black. I’m already worried about safety for my family in regards to entering stores, walking to their car from work, that sort of thing,” said Casey Layton, the equity and inclusion manager for the Department of County Management in Multnomah County. “Masks are another layer — literally and figuratively — to the struggles Black people experience navigating rules and policies and how to stay safe, healthy and alive, just making it to and from their homes.”

People of color have been shot for wearing hoodies. And in 2019, 23-year-old Black massage therapist Elijah McClain was wearing a ski mask while walking home and dancing to music — he was anemic, and his family said it helped him with the cold. He died in custody after police in Colorado used a chokehold on him. 

Layton consulted with the Multnomah County commissioners and chairs about face masks. She and others advised that masks make it more likely a person of color would be considered “suspicious.”

“When you think about face coverings, you think about criminality,” said Joshua Bates, an equity manager in the Multnomah County and City of Portland Joint Office of Homeless Services. “The first thing I thought when I heard about a mask policy coming was, ‘This will disproportionately affect communities of color.’”

Concerns were also raised about over policing. People of color are more likely to be profiled by police, issued citations, and arrested for crimes than white people.

“This is a pandemic within a pandemic,” Bates said. “COVID-19, overlaid by the perpetual pandemic of racism.”

Other reasons for mask wariness

Racial violence and police brutality aren’t the only valid reasons to be nervous about wearing a mask. Disabilities advocates have been vocal about how physical and mental health can make mask-wearing impossible, uncomfortable or downright dangerous.

“Members of our community who have (post traumatic stress disorder) have told us they can’t wear something in front of their face. It reminds them of a horrible thing that happened” Jacobson said.

With this in mind, the Oregon Health Authority’s guidelines for instituting a mask directive included three exemptions. Children under 12, people with disabilities, or people with medical conditions that preclude mask-wearing would not need to put one on — though they are strongly encouraged to do so.

Denying service to a person with a disability who could not wear a mask would already violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This made it explicit.

That was expanded on in the Oregon Health Authority’s June 11 guidance to businesses that want to require masks. The agency called for any face covering policy to make exemptions and to understand that “wearing face masks affects people differently, including people of color who may have heightened concerns about racial profiling or harassment.”

That language appeared, almost verbatim, in the exemptions section of Lincoln County’s courthouse and county-wide directives.

For five weeks, no one complained.

It wasn’t until a week ago, when Lincoln County revised its health directive and expanded it to all indoor and outdoor public places in the county, that people noticed. And that’s what went viral.

But the mandate did not, as was reported, “mandate masks, but only for white people.”

“It’s a health directive put out by Health and Human Services Director David Long,” Jacobson said. “A health directive is stronger than a recommendation, but has no enforceable action.”

In other words, no one who decides not to wear a mask is going to get a ticket, which was clearly stated in the full text of the directive.  

“We had a lot of business owners tell us that they wanted to implement a mask policy, but were worried about backlash,” Jacobson said. Implementing a directive gives businesses a written, government-mandated policy they can blame when customers object to mask use. “They can blame us instead.”

The other six counties required to craft mask policies also chose to not enforce the policy on an individual level, due to concerns about over-policing.

“We’re doing this on a business level,” said Washington County public information officer Mary Sawyers. “We have a number and website people can visit to report businesses that aren’t complying.”

In her county and others, officials said they will primarily respond to complaints with what they called “further education” — providing businesses with signs to encourage compliance, and helping them acquire face masks to give out to customers. Legal action, they said, will be the last option.

Other counties didn’t include race and ethnicity on their lists of exemptions. But recognizing the risk of discrimination against people who can’t use face masks, several issued statements saying that harassing or denying service to people with medical problems or people of color who do or do not wear masks may be discrimination, and may be against Oregon law. Most counties included statements saying that no person should be harassed for not wearing a face mask.

The mask policies were unenforced, so the exemptions primarily served as a reminder to businesses and individuals that certain groups of people might have a good reason for forgoing face masks.

“And if there’s noncompliance, we don’t want people to police each other,” Sawyers said. “We want it to be between the county and businesses.” 

Blame it on the World Wide Web

So how did everything get so out of control? As with so many things in 2020, we can blame the internet. 

On June 18, one person tweeted about what they called a “racist” policy. No one replied. A few days later, there were a few more online mentions — and posts about an Oregon county “with one law for white people, and one law for black people” began to circulate on far-right communities on the online forum Reddit.

And then Andy Ngo, an Oregon-based independent journalist best known for his ties to the far right, tweeted a screenshot of the county’s summary page. The screenshot cropped out a bullet point that said the policy would not be enforced on private or public individuals. The tweet took off.

Ngo’s tweet was quickly picked up by the conservative-leaning Federalist, and then the tabloid the New York Post. Neither publication spoke to anyone at Lincoln County, and both reports appeared to be based  primarily on the context of Ngo’s tweet. 

Neither publication referenced the full text of the directive, or noted that it would not be enforced. They didn’t mention it was in response to a mandate ordered by the governor, and few headlines said it was due to concerns about racial profiling and discrimination.

That information wasn’t hidden in the depths of Lincoln County’s website: a link to the full text of Lincoln County’s directive was visible at the top of Ngo’s individual screenshot.

Podcast host Joe Rogan covered Lincoln County’s exemption. CNN, CBS and Newsweek caught the story, too, and used the earlier reporting, rather than doing their own. Earlier misinformation was amplified, not corrected, as Lincoln County’s mask-wearing exemption was reported to new audiences.

Donald Trump Jr., son of president Donald Trump, tweeted that the county’s policy was “the definition of racism.”

The messages county officials received got nastier, and online discourse became more charged. Some people said it was evidence of a deep-state conspiracy that the government created COVID-19 to kill people of color, or of a similarly-massive, deep-state conspiracy to create separate laws that only apply to white people.

“A lot of people were calling us racists — they’re all self-identified white people,” said Commissioner Hall, “They have been some of the most vocal, profane and vile people who have contacted us. Basically denying that racial profiling exists.”

This was “reverse-racism,” the commenters said. Anti-white racism. Most comments were from people across the country. But many were from Lincoln County, too.

On Wednesday, two days after the first national story about the policy and thousands of emails later, the commissioners decided to remove the exemption for people of color from their directive. And they want it to be very clear: it wasn’t because of threats made against the commissioners.

“People think we just backed down,” Jacobson said. But that wasn’t why.

Commissioners had reached out to “a few” community members of color while drafting the policy. After the backlash, those people and others contacted the county to say that the policy wasn’t working as intended. Jacobson recalled. “They said, oh my god, this is not doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Racist backlash against the policy made people of color in Lincoln County feel less safe, commissioners said. When people of color asked the commissioners to revise the policy, they complied.

“Let us be clear: this policy was meant to protect. Threats and racist statements turned it into a policy that now harms,” county leaders wrote in a three-page statement about the decision, in which they detailed “horrifically racist commentary.”

Colorblind

Equity professionals Joshua Bates and Casey Layton agreed that all of this could have been avoided if more people of color were involved in drafting the policy. 

“It’s not surprising that white fragility showed up around a policy that centers Black people,” Layton said.

It’s an old story: policies that promote equality for people of color can make white people nervous, and leave them feeling like their own rights are at risk, Bates said. But it’s not their rights that are disappearing, just the inequalities.

“If you’re living in privilege, when people start enacting policies around equity, it can feel like oppression,” he said.

Layton said curb cuts on sidewalks illustrate the point: they were built under a policy that centers one group of people — those who use wheelchairs or strollers — without taking away the rights of others.

Hall acknowledged that she and her fellow county commissioners should have consulted with more people of color. The local population is  almost 90% white. 

Commission Chair Jacobson said it was a wake-up call.

“It’s been hard. I think for a lot of our staff, and people in our community, it’s easy to point fingers at other places where racism happened, and it’s easy to say, ‘Oh my god, it’s so terrible.’ But it feels like it doesn’t happen here,” Jacobson said. “But it does.” 

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