A politician in Klickitat County, Washington, is facing backlash after comparing mask mandates to sexual assault and flipping off a resident after she challenged the comparison.
The exchange occurred on Tuesday as Commissioner Dan Christopher moved to fire the county’s health officer, Dr. Amy Person. Person signed a letter in August with other local health experts urging Gov. Jay Inslee to revive a statewide mask mandate as COVID-19 cases exploded.
Christopher’s motion failed to gain any support, but his actions during the meeting have continued to stoke anger.
In a roughly 4-minute speech, sometimes pausing for emotion, the first-term commissioner said he felt ordering the public to wear masks disregarded the “mental health and safety of the 1-in-4 girls that were sexually molested as children and the 1-in-6 women who have been forcibly raped.”
“My question is: who is looking out for these people, that got the vaccine even though they didn’t want it? But they couldn’t have something over their face — a mask or a hand — to bring back memories that trigger panic attacks and PTSD?” Christopher said.
Christopher, who said he is vaccinated, added that he wanted more data about COVID-19 cases, such as how many of the deaths had pre-existing conditions.
“Then understand the masks (sexual abuse survivors) are forced to wear by the governor, even after getting the vaccine, might as well be the governor’s hand silencing the screams of their past,” Christopher added. “I’m sorry if that hurts some of your feelings or upsets you, but that’s where I stand.”
The comments were soon criticized by some in the audience. One speaker called the comparison traumatizing to sexual abuse survivors and doubted his emotion was genuine. Another called the comments “gross,” leading Christopher to extend his middle finger in the air in plain view of the camera.
The gesture and comments combined have riled residents on social media. Some said even if they considered the comments genuine, they were still a bungled and offensive comparison.
Susan Marks, executive director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said many mask and vaccine critics have been making these sorts of comments. Marks said she’s even seen those types of comments from some advocates for sexual assault survivors.
“You’re conflating something that’s inconvenient and maybe a little uncomfortable to something that’s abusive and harmful,” Marks said. “It really minimized the sexual violence and nature of that harm and trauma.”
Gigi Pomerantz, a retired nurse practitioner and Klickitat County resident, told OPB that seeing Christopher flip off a constituent floored her.
“It’s just beyond belief,” Pomerantz said. “I think he should be removed from office for that.”
Christopher declined an interview with OPB, but said in an email that he felt reactions to his statement ignored “my life, my family history, and my pain.” He said he acted courageously to talk about his “family history.” It’s unclear what that history is.
“Now, I will apologize to all of the residents of Klickitat County. I am sorry that I couldn’t hold back my emotions. I wasn’t ready for that kind of political attack using my pain. Now I am,” he wrote.
Klickitat County has seen its fair share of skirmishes around pandemic restrictions. Sheriff Bob Songer over the summer threatened to arrest public officials who tried to enforce any precautions. Songer, who later caught COVID, attended the meeting while wearing a mask.
According to the Klickitat County Public Health Department, the county has seen more than 1,600 positive cases. Currently, it has a seven-day rate of 378 cases per 100,000 residents. To date, 15 people have died.