Stark differences have emerged among three of the six state legislative candidates when it comes to efforts to control COVID-19.
Republican House candidates Brenda Barton and Walt Blackman oppose mask mandates, executive orders closing businesses and other measures recommended by many public health officials, in a recent radio debate. Republican Senate candidate Wendy Rogers did not take part.
Democrats Coral Evans — House — and Felicia French — Senate — did not participate in the radio debate, but appeared on a separate televised debate. That debate did not touch on COVID-19. However, in past appearances Evans has talked about the steps Flagstaff took to respond to the pandemic, including mandatory mask orders. French, a retired Army nurse and colonel who spent a month as a volunteer nurse on the Navajo Nation during the pandemic — has criticized the lack of measures like mask mandates, contact tracing and widespread testing.
Independent Art Babbott — running for the second House seat — criticized the Arizona Legislature for going into recess soon after the pandemic hit Arizona and not providing the support needed by small businesses and residents in the face of the pandemic. Babbott’s the only candidate who took part in both debates.
Blackman, a retired Army sergeant who has held the District 6 House seat for the past two years, defended the decision to end the legislative session — but also criticized the reliance on executive orders issued by Gov. Doug Ducey.
“When you start issuing executive orders, you’ve gone too far. We wanted to go back into session, but the Democrats on the left decided that they needed to be out of session. They decided they didn’t want to do that. The following day they had a protest. Our constitutional duty is to adopt a budget and we did that. We got things done. It was a good bill.”
But Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor and Flagstaff small-business owner, said the Republicans had full control of both houses of the Legislature. “I saw the video when the speaker recessed with zero objection. It was time to show up for work. When the going gets tough, the tough show up to work.”
He said the Legislature didn’t even give people more time to pay their property tax or waive the penalty for late payment. “We could have met them part way. Government should share the sacrifice.”
Blackman said, “we fulfilled our constitutional responsibility by passing a budget. We also wanted to go back to work. We also made sure we worked from home to make sure that the small businesses were able to thrive and fulfill their responsibility.”
Barton weighed in saying, “I believe they should have stayed in session. We’re having an emergency. They need to show up. They need to be there. That’s really part of their job.”
The candidates also disagreed on whether the state or local governments should have issued mask mandates to slow the spread of the virus. Barton and Blackman both opposed a government mask mandate.
“I don’t support the mandate,” said Blackman. “Anytime the executive is running executive orders, it brings strain on businesses and the communities. We have to exercise respect and dignity. If I walk into someone’s store and the business owner puts up a mask sign — then I’m going to put one on. It’s not big government’s choice to tell small businesses what to do. We just can’t do that. We need to continue to let businesses thrive while being saved with this coronavirus.”
Babbott replied, “I would hope that data and science would drive the decision. As someone on a board of supervisors who put a mask mandate in place, I think leaving that to the local government was the right decision. If putting on a mask will mitigate damage and manage the spread — then sign me up. If that’s what it takes to keep our economy functioning and our families strong, that’s all right.”
Barton noted, “The data and the science initially gave us very confusing reports. Wear a mask. Don’t wear a mask. It was very confusing. We need to get the public educated on the real truth of this virus. We don’t use masks in other communicable disease situations, and I think it’s time the mask is not needed.”
The moderator also asked whether the candidates support a law that would provide businesses that reopen legal immunity in the event someone gets infected in the business.
“I’m OK with that,” said Barton. “Here’s the thing about it. You can’t prove they got the coronavirus from your business. Frivolous lawsuits are anathema to society. I’m OK with the liability protection.”
Blackman agreed. “You can’t tell where that person contracted the coronavirus. We did sign onto a law to protect small businesses. We have to let local authorities or small businesses run their businesses. I don’t like a lot of lawsuits as well.”
Babbott agreed — so long as the businesses follow public guidelines and recommended practices, when it comes to things like mask mandates, cleaning procedures and capacity restrictions.
“I think it’s absolutely reasonable in general. Good practices are what drive the no-liability piece,” said Babbott.
Barton and Blackman also both disagreed with the state orders that limited the return to in-person classes at public schools. The state’s advisory guidelines suggested schools rely on distance learning until new cases in the community fell below a certain threshold.
“I think we should put the kids back to school,” said Blackman. “We are doing it in the Snowflake School District — my daughter’s been back for six weeks. We can put our kids back in school. Virtual learning is difficult for some kids. We need to move forward. We need to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Barton agreed. “I think online teaching can be ancillary to classroom teaching — it shouldn’t be the main source of teaching. When you’re in college, that’s a different thing.”
Babbott said the decision should remain at the local level. “Local decisions are best made by entities that are closest to the people they serve. Up in Blackman’s neck of the woods, it’s different maybe from elsewhere. (In Flagstaff) we asked the (school) governing board and the school district to make a decision as to what’s in the best interest of their students. I would be comfortable sending my daughter back to school — but my comfort level should not drive everyone else’s comfort level.”