Oregon’s Lincoln County has created an exception for non-white residents in a new compulsory face mask order, citing concerns over racial profiling, but puzzled observers have deemed the move discriminatory, if not illegal.
The county’s public health directive mandates that “all individuals” in Lincoln “shall wear face coverings” in all public settings, including outdoor areas where proper social distancing is impossible. However, in addition to people with certain disabilities and children under 12 years old, the new order exempts “people of color who have heightened concern about racial profiling and harassment,” creating a clear racial distinction in the rules.
The order has prompted an outpouring of criticism and confusion, with netizens baffled that such a blatantly discriminatory policy could pass muster in 2020, some even labeling it outright racist.
The legality of the new order also became a hot topic, as many argued the rule would never stand up in a courtroom.
Some critics saw more sinister forces at work, musing that orders mandating face masks – whose effectiveness are still a matter of dispute among experts – are a “power grab,” having more to do with politics than public health. Similar concerns over politicized health advice were raised amid widespread protests inspired by the police killing of George Floyd in late May, in which many public health experts outwardly encouraged demonstrations, despite previously warning that all mass gatherings – including protests over Covid-19 lockdown measures – posed significant risk.
Many of the same experts have also cautioned that black and Latino communities are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, making Lincoln County’s new face mask exemption all the more confounding.
Some activists have raised concerns that face masks do, in fact, put certain communities at risk, however. According to ReNika Moore, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, compulsory mask rules put people of color in a “lose-lose situation” with potentially “life-threatening consequences.”
“Not wearing a protective bandana goes against CDC recommendations and increases the risk of contracting Covid-19, but wearing one could mean putting their lives at risk of getting shot or killed because of racially-biased targeting,” Moore argued.