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Posts tagged as “Masks”

Here’s what Dan Forest really says about face masks

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted an attack ad dramatically depicting a quote from his opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest: “I would lift the mask mandate for the state.” Forest would set North Carolina back in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper wrote in his caption. 

52 minutes later, Forest tweeted the exact same graphic. He didn’t need a caption to make his point.

In a governor’s race dominated by the pandemic, face masks are a divisive symbol. Cooper has criticized Forest for ignoring the guidance of experts on masks, but Forest is not shy about his opinions.

On the campaign trail, the Republican challenger has said that masks are not effective and shouldn’t be required in the classroom. 

His comments often focus on individual freedom and an alleged lack of a scientific consensus. And some of his remarks suggest he may not believe in scientific conclusions at all.

Individual freedom and responsibility

Cooper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mandy Cohen, the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, would all say the responsible decision is the same for everyone: wear a mask. But Forest said he believes masks are only important for some. 

I would lift the mask mandate for the state and allow individual freedom to decide whether [North Carolinians] wear a mask.” Forest said in a Sept. 16 press conference. “There are people that have pre-existing conditions … and they need to protect themselves.”

Health experts say that masks are not as much for the wearer’s protection as they are for others. “COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected,” the CDC states on its website. “That’s why it’s important for everyone to wear masks in public settings,” the website reads.  

Forest also said he doesn’t think masks are necessary in schools, but added that they should be worn “ if that is what the parent determines is best for their student.”

During a virtual forum on education, Cooper criticized Forest’s comments. “It was stunning to hear my opponent, the lieutenant governor, say last week that as governor he would fill up every classroom immediately with no safety guidelines and no mask requirement,” Cooper said. “Not only is that wrong, it’s dangerous.” 

Forest called Cooper’s attack against him “character assassination.” 

Despite the statewide mandate, many of Forest’s supporters have accepted his invitation to make their own decisions. Pictures and videos from Forest’s in-person campaign events rarely show masks.

During an Aug. 4 campaign stop in Lexington, WXII News asked him about the lack of face masks in the crowd. 

“When we have events we have masks at the door, anybody that wants one can put one on,” Forest said. “A lot of people don’t show up with masks.”

Masks and social distancing also work against his method of campaigning, Forest said. “We shake as many hands as we can and we meet as many people as possible. It’s just the way we’ve always run a campaign,” he said. “If I’m talking to the crowd, I don’t wear a mask. Can’t talk with a mask on.”

Scientific uncertainty and public confusion

As Forest encourages all North Carolinians to make their own choice about face masks, he laments a perceived lack of conclusive scientific data that might aid them in their decision. The public is confused, Forest said. There are too many mixed messages about the efficacy of masks.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, this was true. Anthony Fauci and the CDC said that masks were not necessary for healthy individuals back in March.

But public guidance has since shifted. The CDC and other public health experts are now clear in recommending face masks for everyone in public spaces.

“I think there’s just a lot of confusion out there with people,” Forest said. “That’s why you see some people wearing them and some people not.”

In a comment PolitiFact rated false, Forest said that masks are not effective with viruses and have never been used with a coronavirus. 

There have been multiple comprehensive studies at the deepest level, held to scientific standards, under controlled circumstances in controlled environments, that have all said for decades masks do not work with viruses,” he said in a July 4 interview.

Forest has cast doubt on the science of closing schools, too. “There is no solid science or data anywhere that suggests that our kids should not be in the classroom right now,” he said. Across the country, outbreaks have appeared in schools that prematurely resumed in-person instruction.

Franklin High School in Macon County, North Carolina was forced to suspend in-person instruction after a staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Students or staff members at six of the 11 schools in Macon County School District have tested positive, The Charlotte Observer reported

But if there’s science that suggests schools and businesses can reopen safely, Forest is quick to rely on it. “The fear and panic campaign continues to go on in North Carolina and that’s unfortunate,” he said in an interview with conservative YouTuber John Woodard, “because there’s plenty of data out there that would suggest that we as a state can live with this virus and can get peoples’ livelihoods back.” 

Forest’s stance on face masks may be rooted in his opinion on science itself. Science isn’t about reaching a consensus, he said, it’s about skepticism. 

Science is not a one size fits all,” Forest said in a recent press conference. “All science is based on skepticism, and you need to have skeptics.”

The “fear and panic campaign” is threatening that foundation, according to Forest. “If anybody is ever skeptical of anything that goes on that doesn’t meet the narrative of the left right now, then they are shut down,” he said. 

Forest said that hundreds of doctors have called to say that their thoughts and findings on face masks are being ignored. He said he’s trying to find accurate, reliable information.

“I’m not a scientist nor a doctor, I just try to do my best to filter through it,” he said. “Just like everybody else.”

At top: Forest poses with employees outside Parker’s, a popular restaurant recently criticized for allegedly not enforcing mask use among workers. Via Dan Forest’s Facebook page.

How Steve Schewel put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system

On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy. 

In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case. 

The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought. 

So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.

Schewel was. 

DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.

Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC. 

“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week. 

In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.

Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.

“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”

Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies 

Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public. 

After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance. 

Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing. 

In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement. 

Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said. 

“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week). 

Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said. 

“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”

To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers. 

Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.

“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”

How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates

Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.

When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.

“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”

With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said. 

“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”

His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.” 

“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network. 

“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted

Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum. 

“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”

Middleton is among his supporters. 

“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”

Lessons of history

The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history. 

One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others. 

The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said. 

His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.

After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality. 

Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table. 

A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.

The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said. 

“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”

At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal