Riley County Commission Chairman Marvin Rodriguez is downplaying the coronavirus problem in the Manhattan area, saying that it’s not as big a problem here as elsewhere because there aren’t many Chinese people.

That’s drawing a sharp rebuke from Manhattan Mayor Usha Reddi.

Rodriguez, during a special county meeting Wednesday to address the coronavirus pandemic, made some comments about the spread of the virus in Italy compared to the United States. That came in the context of a debate over declaring a local emergency, which the county commission ultimately did despite some hesitation.

“I know that other people are having a great problem,” he said. “And someone reminded me that in Italy, they have a lot of garment-people there, fashionists, and they have a tremendous amount of Chinese there, and that’s where a lot of it started. So we don’t necessarily have any (Chinese people), but I think the board would like to make sure that we’re on top of it, and the board will decide on that part.”

Rodriguez later told The Mercury that when he said “garment people” and “fashionists,” he meant that many Chinese people work in the fashion industry in Italy.

Reddi, who attended the meeting Wednesday, posted her concerns about the comments on Facebook Thursday: “At the Riley County Commission special meeting yesterday, one county commissioner said this (paraphrasing): ‘We have zero cases. I don’t think it’s a problem here. In Italy they have a lot of Chinese and that’s why they have the virus. We don’t have that problem here.’”

Reddi continued by saying Rodriguez’s assertion was false.

“Aside from the obvious racism in that comment, let’s be clear, COVID-19 can be spread by anyone regardless of race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status...and it is in our community,” she wrote. “Your job is to protect the community. Stop the games.”

So far there have been no positive tests for coronavirus in Riley County, according to the county health department. Two people have tested positive in Morris County, and 45 total in the state of Kansas.