The McAlester News-Capital decided to cancel the in-person portion of the candidate forum scheduled for Thursday after a candidate did not want to wear a protective face covering.
Warren Hamilton, the Republican candidate running for the Oklahoma District 7 State senate seat, said early Thursday that he disagreed with the newspaper requiring everyone to wear a mask before entering the building to follow a city ordinance and to help slow community spread of COVID-19. Candidates would have been allowed to take the mask off when physically distanced during the forum, but Hamilton still disagreed.
Democratic challenger Jerry Donathan said he was willing to participate even if his opponent wasn’t wearing a mask, but the News-Capital did not want to further risk employee safety and canceled the in-person portion.
Hamilton said he doesn’t believe government has the authority to enforce a mask mandate and believes masks “aren't doing anything to slow the spread of COVID.”
“There’s a lot of science that I’ve read that says having the mask on basically keeps all of your germs right there in your face when you should be getting rid of those things,” Hamilton said.
When asked about the source of that information, Hamilton said he saw some things from One News Now and YouTube but “I don’t have the names to basically document it in a footnote in a research paper.”
“Wearing masks can help communities slow the spread of COVID-19 when worn consistently and correctly by a majority of people in public settings and when masks are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting,” the Centers for Disease Control states.
The U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment gives states all powers not given to the federal government and nearly-two centuries' worth of U.S. Supreme Court decisions allow states to take public health emergency actions, according to the American Bar Association.
Oklahoma's 11 O.S. 22-120 states, “The municipal governing body may enact and enforce such ordinances, rules and regulations as it deems necessary for the protection of the public health, not inconsistent with state law; and may establish and regulate hospitals, and provide for their operation and support. The governing body may make regulations to prevent the introduction of contagious diseases into the municipality and may enforce quarantine laws within five (5) miles of the municipal limits.”
"We stand by our policy requiring a protective face covering to be worn to enter our offices and we believe the City of McAlester's mask ordinance is constitutional," News-Capital General Manager Reina Owens. "It's our responsibility to do everything we can to protect our employees and slow community spread in our community."
Donathan said he believes community spread of the virus can be slowed by wearing masks and protective face coverings, in addition to following other CDC guidelines.
“It’s in the interest of public safety,” Donathan said. “It’s been proven that wearing the mask and social distancing has been effective in battling this.”
Although he disagrees with face masks, Hamilton said he believes people should continue practicing social distancing, cleanliness, and disinfecting highly-touched areas to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
Hamilton said he believes influenza kills more people than COVID-19.
CDC data shows 34,200 "influenza-associated deaths" for 2018-2019. The CDC’s provisional death counts for COVID-19 shows 203,855 "deaths involving COVID-19" dating from Feb. 1, 2020 to Thursday.
Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows 1,110 cumulative cases, 956 assumed recoveries and 20 deaths in Pittsburg County as of Thursday.
Those numbers include 844 cases, 724 assumed recoveries and 18 deaths in McAlester — where city councilors approved an ordinance requiring protective face coverings that went into effect Aug. 20.
Coronavirus numbers were on the rise leading up to the ordinance.
Active cases in Pittsburg County rose from 17 on July 23 to 142 just two weeks later, according to OSDH data. Those numbers included 228 total cases, 113 recoveries and three deaths in McAlester as of Aug. 8.
A White House Coronavirus Taskforce reports from Aug. 9 and 16 listed McAlester as the third-highest at-risk Oklahoma city listed in a red zone.
The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases dropped to nearly five by Aug. 30 before spiking to more than 25 by Sept. 13 — attributed largely to an outbreak at Jackie Brannon Correctional Facility.
Pittsburg County’s seven-day rolling average fell below five by Oct. 4 before rising again recently.
Both candidates still took time Thursday to answer questions the News-Capital planned to ask before the forum was cancelled.
Their answers will appear online soon and in the Saturday edition of the newspaper.
Contact Adrian O’Hanlon III at email@example.com