In this 12 March 2020 file photo, Senator Thom Tillis pauses to speak to media on Capitol Hill in Washington: AP

A Republican senator has come under fire for suggesting Hispanic people in his state are less likely to wear masks and follow social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

Thom Tillis, the junior senator for North Carolina, said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday that he had concerns about “less consistent adherence” with public health guidelines among the Hispanic population.

“Just wear the mask out of respect,” Mr Tillis said, in an audio clip posted online by Democratic super PAC American Bridge.

“Now I will tell you I’m not a scientist and I’m not a statistician, but one of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44 per cent 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.”

However, a Pew Research Centre study published in June showed 74 per cent of Hispanic adults polled said they wore masks in stores all or most of the time, compared to 62 per cent of white adults polled.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also warned last month that many people in Hispanic communities were being exposed to the virus due to their work.

“Many people in Hispanic/LatinX communities provide essential services and work in industries North Carolina relies upon, such as construction, child care and food processing,” the department said in a statement.

“Often, this work is in environments where social distancing can be challenging, health insurance is not provided and for a sick person, staying home could create a significant financial burden.”

The statement added: “These are all factors that may be contributing to the high rate of Covid-19 spread among Hispanic/LatinX communities.”

Mr Tillis’ suggestion that Hispanic people were being infected due to not following public health guidance has provoked anger, particularly among Democratic members of Congress.

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“This racist BS needs to stop,” Veronica Escobar, a Democratic representative for Texas and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote on Twitter.

“Latinos and African Americans are most at risk, dying at higher rates — and STILL going to work every day [because] they are essential workers.

“Meanwhile, Republican colleagues in Congress are the ones who refuse to use masks.”

Arizona Democratic representative Ruben Gallego, another Congressional Hispanic Caucus member, also noted that Hispanic people were at-risk due to their work and said Mr Tillis needed to “respect the people that feed America”.

“We are the essential workers that were forced to go to work,” Mr Gallego said.

“We pulled the food, slaughtered the animals, packaged the food that fed America.”

Following his comments at the town hall meeting, Andrew Romeo, a Tillis campaign spokesperson, said the senator wanted all his constituents to wear masks.

“Senator Tillis has been clear that not enough North Carolinians of all backgrounds have been wearing masks and has consistently advocated that all his constituents do so,” Mr Romeo said.

He added that the Hispanic population in the state faced “significant challenges” due to issues such as the increased exposure risk from working in essential services and the prevalence of multi-generational households in the community.

North Carolina has reported 95,477 positive cases of coronavirus as of Friday, with 1,606 deaths, according to the state’s health department.

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