"And 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 cases — the positive cases," the Republican senator said. "And we do have concerns that, in the Hispanic population, we've seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask."
Tillis made the remarks to constituents Tuesday in a virtual town hall, a recording of which was obtained one day later by Salon. As of Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 91,266 positive cases of COVID-19, including 1,142 people current hospitalizations.
"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," the senator continued.
"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," he added.
It is accurate that a disproportionate amount of North Carolina's COVID-19 cases have been reported in its community. But this is also true of many areas across the country with pockets of high Latinx populations, who are often employed as "essential workers" in jobs which demand sharing tight quarters with other employees, such as construction sites or factories.
A number of economic and sociological conditions contribute to this imbalance, which appears in communities of color across the country. However, Tillis' anecdotal evidence of a racial divide in proper preventive steps would appear to be off-base, if not backwards.
On July 14, the same day Tillis made the remarks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an editorial in the journal of the American Medical Association outlining three studies which illustrate the efficacy of masks in limiting the spread of COVID-19. One survey broke down mask usage and approval along demographic lines.
CDC data from April 7–9 showed that nearly 62% of respondents said they would follow the agency's new recommendations to wear a face covering in public. A follow-up survey conducted from May 11-13 found that number had increased to more than 76%.
"The increase was driven largely by a significant jump in approval by white, non-Hispanic adults, from 54% to 75%," the article read.
"Approval among Black, non-Hispanic adults went up from 74% to 82% and remained stable among Hispanic/Latino adults at 76% and 77%," it continued. "There was also a large increase in face-mask approval among respondents in the Midwest, from 44% to 74%. Approval was greatest in the Northeast, going from 77% to 87%."
In other words, Latinx adults early on appeared to have been far more likely to wear masks than their white peers. What's more, the increase among white adults who were surveyed, while significant, did not surpass that of their Latinx counterparts.
The CDC report is in line with a Pew Research study conducted in June, which showed that white adults were far less likely to say they wear masks in public than other groups, Hispanics included. It further found:
There are also differences across racial and ethnic groups, with whites being the least likely to say they have regularly worn masks: 62% of white adults say they wore a mask in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month, compared with 69% of Black adults, 74% of Hispanic adults and 80% of Asian adults.
White adults thus appear both less likely to approve of mask use and less likely to use masks, as compared to their peers of color.
Tillis not only singled out a community which is more cautious than his own. He also called out one which has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color across the country, from the disease itself to the economic fallout precipitated by the efforts to combat it.
"We have a particularly difficult problem of an exacerbation of a health disparity," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press. "We've known literally forever that diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, particularly African-Americans . . . Health disparities have always existed for the African-American community, but here again with the crisis, how it's shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is."
For example, the virus has been calculated to have been more than twice as deadly for Black and Latinx populations in the city of New York.
The related economic crash has also been particularly acute for Latinx communities across the country. Government statistics from May show that the unemployment gap is largest between Latina women and white men. That month, a record 19% of Latina workers were unemployed. About 16.8% of Black workers were out of work, the demographic with the second-highest rate. The spread in jobless rates between Latinas and white men was 8.3 percentage points.
There is another notable difference between North Carolina's white and Latinx populations: Large groups of white Republicans have made their distaste for masks and social distancing a matter of public spectacle, organizing a series of weekly protests outside the capitol in Raleigh which escalated in intensity. One Republican megadonor offered to pay to bus protesters to the capitol from across the state. Latinx individuals have not similarly flaunted government guidelines or demanded their repeal en bloc.
"We are not defenseless against COVID-19," CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield previously said. "Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus, particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities."
As the pandemic surges across his state, Tillis has been scrambling to regain a lead in polls, where he has consistently trailed Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham for months. A RealClearPolitics average of polls show the incumbent Republican currently sits below 40%, and Democrats are rosy about their chance to oust him in November.
Tillis, for his part, did break with Trump on the mask issue a while ago, imploring his constituents to mask up as early as April. But the senator was not always so quick to embrace public health regulations; in 2015, he argued that the government should not require hand-washing in restaurants.
You can listen to Tillis' remarks about the Latinx community and masks here, shared by American Bridge, a PAC which supports Democratic campaigns and policy: