A top public health official in a St Louis suburb has spoken out after he was targeted by racist abuse at a council meeting on re-introducing mask mandates to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“I’ve been to many council meetings where we’ve had tense conversations. Never has it spilled over into this anger, vitriol and directed abuse to the point where I was fearful for my own safety,” Dr Faisal Khan, acting director of public health for St Louis County, told the Guardian.
“All we asked was for people to wear a mask indoors as they went about their business, whether they wanted to crowd a hundred people in a church or meeting space.”
The St Louis county executive, Sam Page, imposed an indoor mask mandate on Monday on the advice of Khan and other health experts as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations rose.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new recommendations, saying that people vaccinated against the coronavirus should resume wearing masks in public indoor spaces in regions where the virus is surging.
However, the move in the St Louis suburb prompted swift backlash, and the county council voted 5-2 to overrule the mask mandate on Tuesday. In a video widely circulated on social media, a crowd present at the council meeting can be seen cheering the result. Page has insisted the mask mandate is still in effect, despite the vote.
“As I walked into the room, I saw hundreds of people were crammed in. Almost no one was wearing masks,” Khan said. “Some people had children in their laps. So my first thought, as a medical epidemiologist, was, ‘Dear God, this is a superspreader event.’”
Khan attended the meeting after being invited by a council member, Tim Fitch, who asked him to explain the science behind the need to wear masks indoors again.
While testifying, Khan said members of the crowd mocked his accent. As he left, he said he was shoulder-bumped, then surrounded by a crowd and taunted with a racial slur. He also noted that Fitch had used a xenophobic dog-whistle in asking Khan about his credentials.
“Dr Khan, we certainly have heard of your background before, but most here have not,” Fitch said during the meeting. “Can you tell us why you’re called Dr Khan? Are you a physician in the United States?”
Khan wrote a now-public letter to the council describing the racist abuse he received and explaining why he responded by raising his middle finger at the crowd.
A letter from Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Dept of Public Health, to the county council concerning last night's meeting on mask mandates. Read this. pic.twitter.com/LGSleUvagk
— Robert Cohen (@kodacohen) July 29, 2021
“After being physically assaulted, called racial slurs and surrounded by an angry mob, I expressed my displeasure by using my middle finger toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs,” Khan wrote to the councilwoman who led the meeting.
“I remain open to and willing to brief the council on public health issues dealing with Covid-19 and the other important challenges we face in public health in St Louis county. I simply ask that you take appropriate steps to investigate these matters, prevent similar events from happening in the future, and ensure that a safe and orderly environment be created for any future testimony me or my staff are asked to provide to the council.’
Khan told the Guardian the crowd was incited by Fitch.
“The opening question was crafted and designed to paint me as an unqualified brown doctor who was not from America. A political hack,” Khan said. “It spiraled out control very quickly.”
The Guardian contacted Fitch for comment. Fitch told the Post-Dispatch newspaper he believed Khan wrote the letter because knew he was in trouble for “giving the middle finger”.
Page called the abuse directed at Khan “troubling” and said it was under investigation. “The behavior he has detailed is shameful and cannot be tolerated,” Page said in a statement.
In Missouri, only 41% of the population is fully vaccinated. While St Louis county leans to the left politically, the state of Missouri votes majority Republican. Last week, White House officials cited Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Missouri – mostly Republican states – as states with the highest number of new infections.
Khan expressed his disappointment that the larger point about public safety seemed to have been lost.
“We really squandered an opportunity to have a conversation, a discussion, an exchange of knowledge. It was political theater,” Khan said. “From a public health perspective, we really don’t care where people’s political affiliations are. The virus does not discriminate and neither do we.”
Khan is not the only public health official to have endured verbal abuse. In Pennsylvania, where 52.06% of the population is fully vaccinated, parents and community members were recently at odds with the Bucks county school district’s decision to not mandate masks for students just before a school meeting. A doctor addressing the crowd was reportedly called a “murderer”.
In Shreveport, Louisiana, a doctor and public health official was recently cursed and yelled at in a city council meeting while she was debunking vaccine conspiracy theories.
Associated Press contributed to this report