Health officials in the Ohio county that includes Columbus have apologized after releasing a document advising African-Americans to avoid face coverings that might be interpreted as being "associated with gang symbolism.”
The conversation around race and face masks was sparked after the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommended their use in public to slow the spread of coronavirus.
In a tweet that since went viral, Columbus resident Aaron Thomas expressed his discomfort with the recommendation.
"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," he wrote on April 4. "I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive."
Franklin County Public Health released a document in April titled "COVID-19 General Guidance on Wearing Face Mask for African Americans and Communities of Color." The agency said it "wants to ensure that all individuals feel safe and can protect themselves from the COVID-19 when out in public by wearing a face mask.”
The document then outlines recommendations specifically for African-Americans and other communities of color.
"Avoid fabrics that elicit deeply held stereotypes. (i.e. bandanass, skull prints, horror prints, etc.)," the document says. "When utilizing a homemade mask, avoid bandanas that are red or blue, as these are typically associated with gang symbolism."
The final guidance says, "it is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavory behavior."
Some Twitter users called the guidance racist and unacceptable.
On Wednesday, Franklin County Public Health issued an apology.
"Franklin County Public Health apologizes for a recent guidance document focused on mask coverings for African Americans," reads a statement posted on social media.
"Some of the language used came across as offensive and blaming the victims. We have listened to the opinions that have been expressed and are using the voice of the public to inform any new guidance we put out. 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 apology comes one day after Franklin County Public Health declared racism a public health crisis.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.