Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest traded jabs over reopening the economy and dealing with the threat of the coronavirus pandemic during North Carolina's lone gubernatorial debate on Wednesday night.

As Forest highlighted his ambitions to more aggressively get kids in physical classrooms and adults back to work, Cooper noted Forest's skepticism of masks and holding of large, in-person campaign events with little to no mask wearing or physical distancing — moves Cooper said contributed to a debate that looked unusual to viewers.

“Tonight's different because of the plexiglass separating Dan Forest and me,” Cooper said. “It is there because for the last eight months, including last night, Dan Forest has been having in-person events with no masks or social distancing. That's reckless, and it endangers North Carolinians, including the staff in this room.”

Forest criticized Cooper's decision to mandate masks and said North Carolinians should have the personal freedom to wear one if they choose.

“It should be a personal responsibility choice,” Forest said. “It doesn't need to be a governor's mandate. We don't need a governor that treats us like 5-year-olds. We need a governor that does protect us, but not treat us like we're little kids. Masks aren't the solution to everything.”

The lieutenant governor cited comments infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci made in the early stages of the pandemic that masks are unnecessary in certain circumstances. As more facts emerged and coronavirus transmission increased, public health experts have been adamant that masks reduce transmission, with some masks being more effective than others. Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield believe masks could prove more effective than a vaccine in reducing viral spread.

During Wednesday's debate, Forest repeated widely disputed claims that masks make coronavirus transmission worse.

He said, “Masks are actually causing more harm than good" and that “we need to let all the healthy people get back to a normal way of life.”

The mild-mannered governor who has been absent from the physical campaign trail this election cycle quickly went on the offensive.

“Really, Dan? Really? Masks don't work? Scientists say they don't?” Cooper asked. “That is just absolutely not true. You're finding that on the dark corners of the internet.”

Cooper has come under fire by some for weak enforcement of masks and executive orders placing substantial reopening restrictions on certain businesses. While he said some local authorities have agreed to remove unmasked retail customers for trespassing, Cooper pinned the brunt of the blame on law enforcement.

“Law enforcement is a little hesitant to enforce the mandate," Cooper said.

Asked if systemic racism exists, Cooper praised peaceful protests, condemned violence but did not offer a direct response to the question of whether he believes in systemic racism. Hours before Wednesday's debate, the North Carolina Republican Party shed light on another issue where it says Cooper hasn't been fully transparent. The party filed a lawsuit to compel Cooper to disclose more information about his public schedule.

Forest gave a direct answer to the question about racism.

“No, I don't think there's systemic racism," he said. "There is racism. We should reject it at every single turn.”

Forest cited widespread support he's received from law enforcement groups and routinely attacked Cooper's slow reopening. He said South Carolina has succeeded in keeping case counts steady while simultaneously reopening more parts of the economy. He also praised Tennessee and Georgia for easing restrictions while promoting safety.

“They're learning how to live with the virus and protect the vulnerable and get people back to work," Forest said. “They're learning how to do that. We have to learn how to do that in North Carolina, too."

Cooper chastised the comparison to Georgia, noting its similar population size but 100,000 more COVID cases and nearly twice the number of deaths. He said, “That's the kind of state you'd get with Dan Forest as governor: More cases, more deaths, more deaths in nursing homes. I don't think the people of North Carolina want that, Dan."

Forest also attacked Cooper for not giving all K-12 public school parents the option to put their kids back in classrooms.

“Special needs kids need teachers in classrooms," Forest said. "All kids need teachers in the classroom. That's the way it's supposed to be. We've got to get back to that.”

Cooper's latest reopening guidance lets local school districts decide whether to return to daily, in-person learning for elementary school students. Middle and high school students in public schools must still remain virtual at least part of the time and do not have the option to offer daily instruction in physical classrooms. Many elementary schools still offer only partial or fully remote learning.

Forest would reopen all public schools without a statewide mandate for masks or 6 feet of physical distancing. Instead, districts would be able to set their own health protocols and continue to offer remote learning options to parents who want it.

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