Irene Godinez said she is still shocked by recent comments from Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., suggesting that Latinos in North Carolina are harder hit by the coronavirus pandemic because they are not practicing social distancing or wearing masks.
"These comments from a sitting senator were pretty shocking and upsetting to our community," Godinez, director and founder of the Latino advocacy group Poder NC Action, told NBC News. "Our community is being used as a distraction from the real issue, which is that our elected officials in Congress and at the presidential level haven't been doing a good job."
During a telephone town hall on Tuesday, Tillis said, "One of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44 percent of the positive cases 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' remarks gained more attention Thursday after a short audio clip of the event was posted on social media, prompting critics such as Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, to call out the Senator's "racist BS" on Twitter.
Godinez said her aunt, an "essential worker" who identifies as a conservative Christian, was outraged by Tillis' comments, Godinez said.
"She told me, 'I can't believe that he is saying that when we are here showing up to work so that everyone else can be able to stay home safely,'" said Godinez.
Godinez said Tillis' remarks are similar to those from government officials who use Latino communities "as a scapegoat."
Mauricio Castro, an organizer with the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations, told NBC News he is staying away from calling Tillis' comments "racist" because he did not explicitly use a racial slur, "but we are using our common sense and we know that his remarks have an underlying message."
"In any of the different media sources I've seen, we have not seen any Latinos opposing and fighting against rules to wear face masks. I think that is one thing that he fails to really understand," said Castro, referring to the news reports and videos of groups, who appear to be majority white and mostly Republican, who have staged protests to oppose the state's face mask mandate and urge Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to reopen the state despite a surge in cases.
North Carolina has reported 95,477 coronavirus cases as of Friday morning, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. Latinos make up 43 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases even though they represent about 10 percent of the state's population.
Godinez said she called Tillis' office as a constituent Thursday "just to express my dismay and demand an apology for our community."
His staff responded by saying that "he was taken out of context," Godinez said.
Tillis' Senate office did not respond to a request for comment, but Tillis' campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo — Tillis is up for re-election in the fall — said the senator is concerned about COVID-19's disproportionate impact on the state's Latinos.
"The community faces significant challenges, including multi generational 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 said in an email. "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' priority."
"Senator Tillis has also been clear that not enough North Carolinians of all backgrounds have been wearing masks and has consistently advocated that all his constituents do so," said the statement.
Castro and Godinez said that Tillis' remarks deny the issues that put Latinos at a disadvantage and more vulnerable to coronavirus infections. Among these are a lack of health care access as well as a lack of educational opportunities that could help improve their job prospects.
"This is the individual who has voted repeatedly against the expansion of Medicaid," said Castro, adding that Tillis voted to deviate $80 million "earmarked to improve education and help military families to build a wall that his idol, the current administration and the president, is promoting."
Castro, who is working to organize Latino voters in the state ahead of the elections, said: "We're not telling people who to vote for. We're telling people, here's how these people are referring to us. This is the level of respect they seem to give to us — which is disrespect, not respect."
"We're in a new era in North Carolina where Latinos are here, we are North Carolinians, we have a voice and we are proudly exercising our voice," Godinez said.