As cases of the novel coronavirus surged nationwide this week, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) suggested that North Carolina’s Hispanic population may be harder hit by the potentially deadly virus because they are not practicing social distancing or wearing masks as frequently as other groups.

“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 percent of the positive cases,” Tillis, who is up for reelection in the fall, said during a Tuesday telephone town hall. “And we do have some concerns that in the Hispanic population we’ve seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”

Tillis’s remarks, which gained traction Thursday when a short audio recording of the event circulated online after Salon first reported on it, were condemned as “racist” by critics who argued that the virus disproportionately impacts Hispanics because many are essential workers. By Thursday night, at least two Latino Democratic lawmakers had publicly called out Tillis for his comments, noting that there is still a resistance to mask-wearing among conservatives.

“This racist BS needs to stop,” tweeted Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.). “Latinos & African Americans are most at risk, dying at higher rates — and STILL going to work every day [because] they are essential workers. Meanwhile, Republican colleagues in Congress are the ones who refuse to use masks.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) echoed Escobar’s comments, describing the hardships faced by a number of Hispanics amid the pandemic.

“We pulled the food, slaughtered the animals, packaged the food that fed America,” Gallego tweeted. “They did it at barely minimum wage and went back [home] to big families under one roof [because] that is all they could afford.”

Gallego added that Tillis “could never do one full shift at a meat packing factory.”

“Respect the people that feed America,” he wrote.

In a statement to The Washington Post on Friday morning, Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo stressed that the senator has “been clear that not enough North Carolinians of all backgrounds have been wearing masks and has consistently advocated that all his constituents do so.” Tillis, in contrast with some other Republican lawmakers and President Trump, is a vocal mask proponent and has supported his state’s stay-at-home orders, WUNC reported earlier this year.

“The community faces significant challenges, including multigenerational households that make it tougher to social distance, and the increased exposure risk for essential workers on the frontlines who are keeping our economy running,” Romeo told The Post. “The government at all levels should assist the community in the fight to beat the virus and promote ways to keep residents safe and healthy, which is Senator Tillis’s priority.”

One such method is the telephone town halls, which, according to Tillis’s website, give North Carolinians a chance to ask questions and discuss the pandemic with the senator.

During Tuesday’s event, Tillis’s comments about North Carolina’s Hispanic population came as part of a longer answer to a question about whether police could enforce mask rules, Salon reported. According to the news site, the original question did not mention the minority group.

The portion of his response concerning Hispanics was captured in the audio recording, which appeared to first be shared by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC. Tillis is locked in a competitive race for his seat against Democrat Cal Cunningham, a former North Carolina state senator.

“Just wear the mask out of respect,” Tillis could be heard saying at the beginning of the recording.

He then went on to talk about the higher rates of infection among Hispanics, before acknowledging that wearing a mask and social distancing can at times be “an inconvenience.”

“But it’s a minor inconvenience when you think about the fact that you may be infecting somebody or you yourself may have an underlying health condition that can make it an acute case that ultimately leads to death,” he said. “So 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 get to that point.”

By early Friday, North Carolina had more than 93,400 reported coronavirus cases and 1,588 deaths, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

Citing figures from state health officials, the Raleigh News & Observer reported last month that Latinos make up 44 percent of the nearly 30,000 cases in North Carolina for which ethnicity is known.

Health experts, such as North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen and Duke University professor Viviana S. Martinez-Bianchi, have attributed the “dramatically disproportionate impact” on Hispanics mostly to their essential worker status, according to the newspaper.

“While others were able to isolate at home, you had to go out to work,” said Martinez-Bianchi, addressing Latino workers at a June news conference. “You work in meat processing plants, in cleaning, in construction, in supermarkets, hospitals, and kitchens, in many cases, without access to personal protective equipment, such as these masks, which are so necessary to prevent the transmission of the virus from person to person.”

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (The Washington Post)

Still, Hispanics and other minority groups such as African Americans and Asians are more likely to regularly wear a mask in public compared with white people, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June.

The survey found that 74 percent of Hispanic adults said they had recently worn masks in stores or other businesses “all or most of the time,” compared with 62 percent of white adults. More than 9,600 respondents’ answers were recorded with a margin of error of 1.6 percentage points, the center said.

On Thursday, critics accused the senator of, as one person put it, “saying his Hispanics constituents are to blame” for North Carolina’s surge in coronavirus cases. The backlash came on the same day the United States saw a single-day high of new reported cases, recording more than 70,000.

“You work in cramped spaces for min wage feeding the country and let’s see how you are doing,” tweeted Eric Garcia, a former independent congressional candidate in California.