Debates on vaccine, mask mandates permeate Virginia governor’s race

The nationwide debate over vaccine and mask mandates is infiltrating the upcoming statewide elections in Virginia as coronavirus cases in the commonwealth tick upward. 

Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin hit Democratic nominee and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe over Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) newly announced mask mandate on Thursday, saying the mandate is “the first step towards returning to a full shutdown of our economy.”

“With today’s student mask mandate announcement, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe and Richmond liberals have made clear that they will stop at nothing to impose their will and take away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for our kids,” Youngkin said in a statement, adding that “if parents, teachers, and children want to wear a mask, they absolutely should do that.”

McAuliffe’s campaign responded to Northam’s mandate, reiterating his support for following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“While Glenn Youngkin is taking leadership cues from Ron DeSantis’ disastrous handling of the pandemic in Florida and even opposed funding for vaccine distribution, Terry is strongly encouraging every eligible Virginian to get the COVID-19 vaccine and has required his campaign staff do so,” McAuliffe’s spokesperson Renzo Olivari said in a statement. 

On the vaccine front, McAuliffe and Youngkin have both urged Virginians to get vaccinated, but differ when it comes to mandates. 

McAuliffe and the rest of Democratic ticket are requiring their staff to get vaccinated, while Youngkin has said the choice to get vaccinated is a personal decision. 

McAuliffe’s campaign manager Chris Bolling said in a statement announcing the staff-wide mandate that the move “is another important step to protect our community and get through this pandemic.”

“The only way we’re going to truly end this pandemic and keep our economy strong is by getting every eligible Virginian vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Bolling said. 

Meanwhile, Virginia GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Winsome Sears has intensified her rhetoric on the vaccine after saying last month, “If you don’t want to get the vaccine, whatever.”

“We do not support vaccine passports, but encourage everyone who can get the vaccine to get it,” Sears told the Virginia Scope on Friday. “We are confident Virginians are capable in making safe and smart decisions for themselves. We cannot go back to shutdowns and lockdowns, we must move forward in a safe way. Science is on our side. Get vaccinated. If you choose not to — please take responsibility. Wear a mask and remain safe.”

The issue has taken on a new urgency as COVID-19 case counts climb in the state, fueled by a surge in the new delta variant. Cases with the new delta variant strain have wreaked havoc on unvaccinated Americans across the country, with some of breakthrough cases reported in vaccinated individuals. 

“Even though Virginia has weathered the delta variant better than most of the country, people still share the same concerns,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. 

On Thursday, the Virginia Department of Health reported an increase of 2,361 cases from Wednesday after the department reported an increase of 2,117 from Tuesday to Wednesday. 

But the state’s health department also noted that vaccinations in Virginia were up to 9,617,533 doses on Thursday compared to 9,603,216 on Wednesday.

The uptick in cases in Virginia has led to the reemergence of the mask debate in the commonwealth, a debate that has been taking place across the country, with Democratic state and local leaders appearing to be more open to mask mandates in schools. 

“This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply,” Northam said in a statement, adding that the order echoes guidance from the CDC. 

Northam said last week that schools not complying with CDC guidance on masking could face legal trouble. 

But the order is likely to be met with resistance in Virginia. County school board meetings have become ground zero for the debate over mandatory masking in schools, with emotions running high on both sides of the debate. 

On Tuesday, the Virginia Beach School Board voted 7-4 to mandate masks in public schools, while in Chesterfield County the school board voted unanimously to approve the mask mandate. But in nearby Hanover County, the board voted 4-3 against requiring students or staff to wear masks during the upcoming school year. Roughly 30 speakers weighed in on the mask debate in Chesterfield, while almost 70 people spoke at the Virginia Beach meeting which went past 1 a.m. on Wednesday, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

“The bigger issue here is mandatory masking of your child going to school,” said conservative Virginia talk show host John Fredericks. 

Youngkin told Fredericks on his show last week that he would ban mask mandates, following in the footsteps of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). 

“Yeah, I believe there should not be mask mandates in Virginia,” Youngkin said when asked whether he would ban mask mandates in Virginia like DeSantis did in Florida. 

Fredericks told The Hill he believes the issue of mask mandates could boost Youngkin against McAuliffe in November, citing the highly sought after suburban female voters who turned against former President Trump in 2016 and 2020.

“This is a winning issue for him,” Fredericks said. “The suburbs are where the mama bears are. This is all about the mama bears, and I don’t care whether you voted for McAuliffe, voted for Biden, or you don’t like Trump’s tweets, when you’ve got to wrap your kid in a mask in the third grade, that doesn’t feel good to you.” 

Virginia Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen, who represents the state’s 34th District in Fairfax, warned that Northam’s new mandate is “the wrong narrative” for Democrats. 

“From a political perspective, it’s counterproductive to Democrats because it negates all of the progress that we’ve made, which is a lot in getting people vaccinated,” Petersen told The Hill, adding that it is not within the governor’s authority to issue a mandate on the school systems. 

“I hope Terry McAuliffe, who is a pretty clever guy, is going to step back from this top-down Richmond dictating to everyone else what’s going on style of leadership,” Petersen said. 

Recent polling shows that a majority of voters across the country say they support mandatory vaccines and mask requirements. A Politico-Morning Consult survey released on Wednesday found that a majority of voters said they were supportive of indoor mask requirements and mandatory coronavirus vaccines.

However, the findings showed a partisan split, with Republicans overwhelmingly saying they opposed mask and vaccination requirements. Seventy-nine percent of GOP voters polled said they supported both required vaccinations and masks in indoor spaces, while 28 percent of Democrats said the same. 

And other experts say Youngkin following DeSantis’s playbook when it comes to the pandemic could be risky, given how much more left-leaning Virginia is than Florida. 

“That position appeals primarily to the Republican base which is not big enough in Virginia to win a statewide election,” Rozell, of George Mason University, said. “Many other people recognize that the so-called personal choice has an impact on more than just that individual. People are aware of the risk of this variant.” 

Tags 2021 elections Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin mask mandate Ron DeSantis Terry McAuliffe vaccine mandate Virginia Virginia gubernatorial race

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