Health authorities in Ohio’s largest county are apologizing this week after issuing “offensive” face-mask guidance for African Americans and people of color, urging them to steer clear of masks that could be associated with “gang symbolism” or “elicit deeply held stereotypes.”
The Franklin County Public Health department, which just recently declared racism a public health crisis, had issued its guidance last month after African Americans expressed concern about being racially profiled while wearing face masks. Officials said they wanted to “ensure that all individuals feel safe and can protect themselves from the COVID-19 when out in public by wearing a face mask.”
But the pointers the health department offered didn’t exactly resonate in the way authorities apparently hoped. The guidelines, which encouraged people of color to wear brightly colored masks with decorative fabric, also urged:
“Avoid fabrics that elicit deeply held stereotypes. (i.e. bandannas, skull prints, horror prints, etc.)”
“When utilizing a homemade mask, avoid bandannas that are red or blue, as these are typically associated with gang symbolism.”
And finally: “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavory behavior, although not intended.”
To critics, it sounded more like guidance on how to avoid being attacked or stigmatized because of their skin color.
“This racist ‘guidance’ from @FC_PublicHealth is unacceptable,” one critic who distributed the guidelines wrote on Twitter. “They’re really suggesting that [people of color] take responsibility and make careful mask choices during a GLOBAL PANDEMIC to avoid being lynched.”
As the criticism mounted, county health authorities walked back the document on Wednesday afternoon, saying they realized “some of the language used came across as offensive and blaming the victims.”
“We have listened to the opinions and are using the voice of the public to inform any new guidance we put out,” the health department wrote “Everyone deserves to feel safe while wearing a face covering and not be subjected to stigma, bias or discrimination. We apologize and will continue to stay engaged in tough conversations to be better for the communities we serve.”
The health department’s apology was particularly notable to some critics because it came one week after Franklin County Public Health declared racism a public health crisis, acknowledging how decades of discrimination and segregation have created serious health disparities between black and white Ohioans. Commissioners in Franklin County adopted a resolution similar to the health department’s on Tuesday, pledging to devote more resources to addressing health inequities in minority communities.
“Racism has been a pandemic long before the current coronavirus pandemic,” Franklin County Commissioner Kevin L. Boyce said in a statement.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated those disparities, as black people all over the country are dying from the disease at rates disproportionate to those of white people. The same has been true in the state of Ohio, which has seen at least 30,167 cases and 1,836 deaths. Although African Americans make up about 13 percent of Ohio’s population, they account for at least 26 percent of covid-19 cases, 31 percent of hospitalizations and 17 percent of deaths, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) revealed in a Thursday news conference.
“The health disparities didn’t occur overnight. They are complex and present complex challenges,” he said, pledging that his Minority Strike Task Force would release a report next month. “The current coronavirus pandemic has brought into high contrast these troubling issues.”
Public health experts in Ohio and elsewhere have explained that the coronavirus racial disparities are likely due to higher rates of chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes, among black Americans compared to white Americans. Yet those disparities are in turn largely because of decades of inequitable access to health care in minority communities, experts have said.
“We hear more and more that people are clamoring to return to normal,” said Joy Bivens, director of the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, during this week’s county commission meeting, the Columbus Dispatch reported. “Our community can never return to normal. Normal was not working for them. Black people and people of color were in crisis before covid hit our community.”
Health disparities have not been the only way in which black Americans have been disproportionately affected throughout the covid-19 crisis. Black people have been arrested or cited for social distancing infractions at disproportionate rates compared to white people in some jurisdictions, as The Washington Post recently reported.
And after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last month that everyone wear masks in public, some black Americans felt discomfort that white Americans could not relate to: fear that donning a face covering could subject them to racial profiling.
On April 4, the day after the CDC released its facial-covering recommendations, Columbus resident Aaron Thomas described that fear in a viral tweet: “I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world,” Thomas wrote. “I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”
The tweet caught the attention of Franklin County Public Health, as officials intended to address the concerns raised by Thomas and those who may feel similarly. They said in the guidance document that they understood some African Americans may feel “general reluctance in wearing masks in public due to the possibility of profiling from law enforcement, discrimination while in grocery stores, public spaces, or when interacting with the general public.”
But as the guidance made the rounds on social media this week, some questioned why it wasn’t instead aimed toward law enforcement or white people.
“Will @FC_PublicHealth be following up with some general guidance to white people and law enforcement to advise them against treating Black and Brown community members as a threat simply because they are wearing a scarlet bandana or a mask that is not brightly colored?” wrote Nikki Baszynski, a Columbus attorney with the Justice Collaborative.
On Wednesday, some thought the apology was not enough, although others said they appreciated it in light of the agency’s recent commitment to addressing racial health inequities
“Apologies are more strengthened by actions than by words, so of course you know the important work of anti-racism based public health continues,” Riko Boone, a public health social worker, wrote on Twitter. “This is an important step in that direction.”