In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., pauses to speak to media on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tillis is under fire for comments about coronavirus' spread in the Latino community. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) US Sen. Thom Tillis
In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., pauses to speak to media on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tillis is under fire for comments about coronavirus' spread in the Latino community. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The Republican senator takes heat for mistakenly blaming coronavirus’ disproportionate spread among Latinos on not wearing a mask.  

While talking about coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on Latinos this week, Sen. Thom Tillis seemed to blame the crisis on Latino people not wearing masks. But multiple public health surveys would say that is not true.

Tillis, a Republican running for re-election this fall to the US Senate, reportedly made the comments during a virtual town hall Tuesday. American Bridge, a PAC backing Democratic candidates this fall, made a recording of Tillis’ comments available Wednesday. 

Get Cardinal & Pine in your inbox. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

“And I will tell you, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a statistician,” Tillis appears to say in the recording. “But one of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44% of the cases — the positive cases. And we do have concerns that, in the Hispanic population, we’ve seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”

A report published this week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly contradicts Tillis’ statements.

When broken down on demographic lines, the CDC survey indicates Latino respondents were more likely to follow the federal agency’s advice for wearing a mask than white respondents and have been for months, although the number of white respondents who said they would wear masks surged from April to May.

A Pew Research Study last month had similar findings, with white residents being less likely than Latinos to don a protective face covering.

‘Ill-informed at Best.’

Salon reported on the controversy Thursday morning, which spurred some immediate criticism for North Carolina’s junior senator.

“Simply saying that this is because people don’t wear masks is ill-informed at best,” Eliazar Posada, director for community engagement and advocacy of the nonprofit El Centro Hispano, told Cardinal & Pine Thursday. 

Posada said rising infections among Latino North Carolinians can be attributed to multiple factors, including relatively limited access to health care. He also noted many Latino residents work in construction, industry and food preparation, jobs where social distancing is more difficult to maintain.

“A lot of our community are essential workers who are put at risk every day so they can feed their families,” Posada said.

In a press conference Thursday afternoon with leaders from Piedmont Rising and the Latino advocacy group Poder NC, multiple speakers described Tillis’ comments as “racist,” demanding an apology from the senator. 

Jessica Coscia with Piedmont Rising noted 30% of Latino North Carolinians are without health insurance, the highest percentage among any racial or ethnic groups in the state.

“The data available makes it really really clear that you don’t have to be a statistician or a scientist to understand why these remarks are blatantly false and irresponsible,” said Coscia. “As a Latina, I am appalled. I am disappointed. This type of information is so irresponsible.”

Poder Executive Director Irene Godínez said she’s had 10 family members diagnosed with the highly contagious virus, noting many work in “essential” jobs for minimal pay. 

“Whether he likes it or not, Sen. Tillis represents us and he can’t choose which constituency he represents and which deserves to be treated with dignity,” said Godínez. “We’re tired of being blamed for problems and being treated as second class,” she added.

“Hispanic North Carolinians are less likely to have access to health care and more likely to be forced to work in a dangerous environment where they could be exposed to coronavirus,” said Casey Wilkinson, executive director of the healthcare-focused nonprofit Piedmont Rising on Thursday. 

“Instead of blaming North Carolinians who are the victims of racial disparities in health care and the economy, Tillis should be working to expand access to health care and keep workers safe on the job. But instead, he’s looking to give corporations immunity and absolve them of any responsibility to protect their workers and their community. Tillis’s comments are disgraceful, and he should apologize immediately.”

As the CDC has noted before, there is mounting evidence that wearing a mask can slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has infected a confirmed 93,426 North Carolinians and killed 1,588.  

As Cardinal & Pine has reported, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on the state’s Latino residents, but the evidence indicates that’s not because Latinos are by and large rejecting the CDC recommendation on masks.  

State officials were slow to boost their bilingual tracing program to contain the virus among Spanish-speaking North Carolinians.

Also, Latino North Carolinians make up a disproportionate share of the workers in factories and meat-processing facilities, jobs where social distancing is more difficult. Poverty and a relative lack of access to health insurance and health care have also exacerbated things in the Latino community, experts say. 

A Tillis spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. 

Tillis has been targeted by progressives and Democrats on his healthcare record this year, although the GOP senator has been more welcoming of mask use than some of his Republican colleagues, including President Trump. 

“I know that it’s an inconvenience, but it’s a minor inconvenience when you think about the fact that you may be infecting somebody, or you yourself might have an underlying health condition that could make it an acute case that ultimately leads to death,” Tillis said during Tuesday’s town hall. “I don’t know if we’d ever have enough police officers to go into every convenience store, grocery store and cite people for doing it, but I really hope we don’t have to go to that point.”

Tillis is trailing his Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, in most polls. Cunningham has also outraised the GOP senator, whose re-election could decide which party controls the US Senate. 

This is a developing story. Check back up for updates.