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Fact Check: Campaign Ad Takes Thom Tillis' Comments On Hand-Washing Out Of Context


An old comment from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has been resurfacing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The most recent instance, a TV ad from Majority Forward PAC runs a clip from a news report with an anchor saying that Tillis called signs requiring employees to wash their hands "a product of overregulation." A narrator then says Tillis "doesn't think restaurant workers should have to wash their hands — really."

Tillis faces a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. WRAL's Paul Specht joins "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to assess the ad's claims.

Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul.

Paul Specht: Good morning.

Worf: So, did Tillis actually say he doesn't think restaurant workers should have to wash their hands?

Specht: No, that's not what he said, and that's sort of how it's framed in this television ad, but that's not what he said. He was at an event in D.C. and he was trying to make a point about regulations. And he said that there are some regulations that are necessary and some that may not be necessary because market forces would enforce them without any government help. And he used handwashing as an example.

Senator Thom Tillis
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

Thom Tillis (recording): She said, for example, don't you believe that this regulation that requires this gentleman to wash his hands before he serves your food is important, should be on the books? I said, "As a matter of fact I think it's one that I can illustrate the point." I said, "I don't have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy, as long as they post a sign that says, 'We don't require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.' The market will take care of that." (Crowd laughs.)

Specht: And obviously, you can hear the crowd is laughing with him because ... it would be a huge risk to take for any business to post a sign saying, "We don't require our employees to wash their hands."

Worf: And when did Tillis make these comments?

Specht: I'm glad you brought that up because that's a huge omission here. These comments were made in 2015, but in the ad, we're given no idea of when these comments were made. They're presented in the context of the pandemic, and that's misleading.

Worf: Now, has Tillis said anything since the pandemic about handwashing?

Specht: Amid this entire pandemic, Tillis has been one of the very few Republicans who has been outspoken in his support for regulations, especially in North Carolina. Tillis has complimented Gov. Cooper, who is a Democrat, about the steps he's taken. He's said, you know, handwashing needs to be done, social distancing needs to be done, mask-wearing needs to be done. He's been one of the most consistent Republicans in this regard.

Worf: And how does the Majority Forward PAC, who funded this ad, how do they explain it?

Specht: They believe that his old comments are relevant because they believe it shows a window into his thinking on hygiene and what regulations are necessary to keep people safe. But again, those are from five years ago, and those are from an example he was giving about government regulations during a time when there was not a pandemic.

Worf: So, what is your final rating on this, then?

Specht: The editors that I work with were unanimous in giving this a false.

These fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.