WASHINGTON ― Senators on Thursday condemned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for refusing to wear a mask in a recent meeting with tribal leaders and urged him to immediately issue guidance to employees on when to wear masks based on public health guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
In a letter, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) cite reports that Bernhardt would not wear a mask in a July 9 meeting with the Klamath Tribes of Oregon. The senators also said they’ve heard on-the-ground reports of Bureau of Land Management employees, who are part of the Interior Department, ignoring Oregon’s mask mandates in outdoor settings where people cannot stay six feet apart.
“We are concerned this blatant disregard for the public health is happening across the agency in other states,” the senators said. “This type of cavalier and callous indifference for human safety is unacceptable, especially from those in positions of leadership.”
Here’s a copy of their letter:
Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, was in the July 9 meeting with Bernhardt. He told HuffPost that Bernhardt said at the start of the meeting, which included the leaders of four tribal nations along with local officials and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), that he wouldn’t be wearing a mask because people were sitting spaced apart. LaMalfa wouldn’t wear a mask, either. All of the tribal representatives wore masks.
“When I spoke, I did remove my mask on one side of my face, and immediately after I talked, I put it back on,” said Gentry. “Our Native people and other people of color are significantly more at risk. So we’re doing everything we can to be careful.”
Senators made that point in their letter as well, saying Bernhardt’s refusal to wear a mask was “particularly concerning given that Tribes in Oregon and across the country have seen an increase in positive COVID-19 cases, and larger outbreaks are being confirmed in counties with smaller relative population throughout Eastern Oregon where this meeting took place.”
The senators ask Bernhardt to respond to their letter by July 29.
Interior Department spokesman Connor Swanson said it is “completely false and offensive” for senators to suggest the Interior Department hasn’t already issued guidance on masks to employees.
“It is unfortunate the Senators are trying to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The Department has issued guidance regularly to its employees consistent with guidance from the CDC and state officials throughout the pandemic. This guidance will continue to be followed as the health and safety of the public and our employees are our highest priorities.”
As for the July 9 meeting with tribal leaders, Swanson said it followed CDC and state social distancing guidelines. He also passed along a photo of Bernhardt entering the meeting with a mask on, but did not say if it came off just as the meeting kicked off.
Bernhardt called for the meeting with tribes that day to talk about water management issues. But tribal leaders said they were given little notice that he was coming, and left the meeting feeling unheard. In a statement released after the meeting, the Klamath Tribes said tribal leaders were only given 10 to 15 minutes to talk, which was “not an example of ‘meaningful’ government-to-government consultation as defined in any of several state and federal policies.”
When tribal leaders tried to make this point, Bernhardt reportedly interrupted them and said they didn’t have to come to the meeting at all.
“We fear that the ‘meeting’ was little more than political cover for further erasure of our Indigenous voices ― and in our own homeland,” reads the tribe’s statement. “The struggle to protect and restore the health of this magnificent place that the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin peoples have called home for thousands of years continues.”
Swanson called it a “productive meeting” and said the Interior Department “is committed to working together with Tribes, farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders as it relates to its actions in the Klamath watershed.”