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Democrats hit Interior secretary for reportedly refusing to wear mask in meeting with tribes

Democrats hit Interior secretary for reportedly refusing to wear mask in meeting with tribes
© Greg Nash

Three Democratic senators are criticizing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt over reports that he refused to wear a mask in a meeting with tribes in Oregon earlier this month.

“On your July 9 visit with the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, the tribe expressed concerns that you and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the State of California refused to wear a mask ” wrote Democratic Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBecerra says he wants to 'build on' ObamaCare when pressed on Medicare for All Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (Mass.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBiden's picks face peril in 50-50 Senate Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Hillicon Valley: Google lifting ban on political ads | DHS taking steps on cybersecurity | Controversy over TV 'misinformation rumor mills' MORE (Ore.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyEx-Capitol Police chief did not get FBI report warning of violence on Jan. 6 Democrats want businesses to help get LGBT bill across finish line Democrats revive debate over calling impeachment witnesses MORE (Ore.).

The letter did not name the lawmaker from California, but an Interior Department press release describing the trip said Bernhardt was joined by Rep. Doug LaMalfaDouglas (Doug) LaMalfaGrowing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Interior ends endangered species protections for gray wolves MORE (R-Calif.).

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“There are also on-the-ground reports of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees ignoring Oregon mask mandates,” the senators added in Wednesday's letter to Bernhardt.

Asked whether Bernhardt wore a mask, Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson said in an email that the secretary “had a productive meeting with representatives from the Klamath, Yurok, Hoopa Valley, and Karuk Tribes while following CDC and state social distancing guidelines,” referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Interior photos shared with The Hill showed Bernhardt and LaMalfa wearing masks during a portion of the meeting.

However, Klamath Tribes chairman Don Gentry, who attended the indoor meeting, told HuffPost that Bernhardt said he wouldn't be wearing a mask since people were seated far enough apart.

“When I spoke, I did remove my mask on one side of my face, and immediately after I talked, I put it back on,” Gentry said. “Our Native people and other people of color are significantly more at risk. So we’re doing everything we can to be careful.”

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In their letter, the senators also urged Bernhardt to issue guidance on mask and personal protective equipment policies for his agency.

“Department wide guidance on face coverings and requiring employees across the Department of Interior to follow both CDC and state guidelines will provide a clear and consistent message that will keep the country safe,” they wrote.

Swanson said the Democratic senators were trying to “politicize” the pandemic.

“The Department has issued guidance regularly to its employees consistent with guidance from the CDC and state officials throughout the pandemic,” he said. “This guidance will continue to be followed as the health and safety of the public and our employees are our highest priorities.”