Cooper, Forest spar over coronavirus response

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    Raleigh – Discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic monopolized the gubernatorial debate between Gov. Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest on Oct. 14.
    To kick off the debate, Cooper called Forest “reckless” for not wearing a mask at recent campaign events. Forest shot back later in the night by pointing out that scientists are still debating the effectiveness of masks.
    “Eighty-five percent of the positive cases in America are from people who say they wore the mask every day, all the time or at least almost all the time,” Forest said, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention data.
    The debate, which was presented through a partnership between UNCTV and the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, took place without a live audience due to the pandemic. The candidates were separated from each other and the moderator by acrylic glass. Before questioning began, it was disclosed that everyone in the building had each tested negative for the virus within 12 hours prior to the event.
    Cooper defended his pandemic response and the condition of the state’s economy, while implying that Forest’s position on a mask mandate and his lawsuit challenging the governor’s executive orders are the reason why COVID-19 infection numbers increased after leveling off.
    “Politicians like this who hold these in-person events and discourage masks are part of the problem,” Cooper said about Forest. “They make it harder for us to ease our safety measures, harder for us to get our children back in school where they need to be and harder for us to slow the spread of this virus.”
    Forest said the governor continually talks about masks to deflect from the consequences of his business shutdown orders, such as the number of people unemployed, the number of businesses that have permanently closed, the number of people who have turned to drugs and alcohol as a solution to depression and the suicide rate.
    “There’s a lot of things in Gov. Cooper’s record that he doesn’t want to tell you, so he spends a lot of time talking about masks,” Forest said. “Half of the deaths in North Carolina have come from nursing homes, which are under the direct control of Gov. Cooper. If he’d spend half the amount of time, half the amount of energy and half the amount of money just focusing on the most vulnerable in North Carolina, we’d have half the amount of deaths.
    “We need to make sure that we can do two things at once in America. We can protect the most vulnerable, and we can allow the healthy folks to get back to their livelihoods.”
    Forest said he believes “we’re trading public health for public health,” as there is a public health crisis regarding the virus itself and a public health crisis resulting from protocols that have been put in place as a result of the virus. If elected, Forest would reopen the economy and “focus on protecting the most vulnerable.”
    Cooper argued that protecting nursing homes required “strong measures” among the general public because the virus could be spread to vulnerable populations by staff or visitors.
    “Slowing the spread of this virus helps us recover our economy,” Cooper said. “We’ve been recruiting tens of thousands of jobs to our state, even during this pandemic.”
    The candidates also sparred over the future of the state budget, with Forest criticizing the governor’s business shutdown orders and saying it will “take years to bail this out, long after Gov. Cooper is gone.”
    Meanwhile, Cooper blamed potential budget shortfalls on “sweeping corporate tax cuts” and a perceived lack of leadership in helping to slow the virus.
    “We do not need to increase taxes in order to handle this budget; what we need to do is stop the tax giveaways to the wealthy,” he said.
    On the topic of race relations in the state, Forest said racism exists in North Carolina, but it is not systemic. Cooper largely dodged the question of whether systemic racism exists in the state but expressed remorse over the death of George Floyd.
    “We need to listen to people who lift up their voices for equality and justice,” the governor said, “but we cannot tolerate violence and destruction.”
    Regarding teacher pay raises and Medicaid expansion, which are the two issues causing a budget impasse, Forest said “all we need is a new governor” to reach a deal.
    “The governor has been an obstructionist ever since he’s been in office,” Forest said. “He’s never tried to work with the General Assembly.”
    Cooper said he has no problem working with the Legislature, but he’s not going to “rubber stamp” every decision they make.
    “Health care is one of the most important issues we face right now and closing the health-care coverage gap, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, is a moral imperative,” Cooper said. “We have a way to get health care to construction workers and early childhood educators by expanding Medicaid.”