COVINGTON — A mask dispute between Democrats and Republicans volunteering as observers and adjudicators for the absentee ballot process continued over the weekend, with Democrats calling on county leadership to enforce a mask requirement for volunteers at the county’s Administration Building.
Observers for the Newton County Democratic Party walked out of the Newton County Board of Elections Office Monday and Tuesday last week after they complained that a Republican monitor was improperly wearing a mask Tuesday and that she was wearing a faceshield on Wednesday. The Democrats argued that a faceshield without a mask is not sufficient protection against the spread of COVID-19 and does not meet CDC guidelines.
In an email to Board of Elections Chairman Phil Johnson, Dr. Ryan Barrett Sr., chairman of the Newton County Democratic Party, said he had instructed the Democrat members of the voter review panel and monitors for the ballot process that “until we hear concretely that their safety will be made a priority and a face covering that is in compliance with the CDC guidelines (will be required) … I cannot in good faith ask any of them to return to continue the processing and adjudicating of ballots for this election.”
Newton County has a mask mandate for public places, but Johnson said that there are exceptions in the ordinance that “limit our ability to enforce beyond what’s in the law.” Johnson said the Board of Elections consulted with the county and with the Sheriff’s Office and was told that wearing a faceshield fulfilled the county’s mask ordinance requirements.
Over the weekend, Democrats sent out several emails to county officials complaining about the county’s lack of enforcement.
In an email to members of the Board of Commissioners Sunday, Juanita Carson said she had volunteered as an adjudicator and observer in the November General Election, but she felt uncomfortable because one volunteer from the GOP refused to wear a mask and then agreed to wear only a faceshield.
“I was not comfortable but continued because I felt this was important,” wrote Carson. “I expressed my concern to members of the Board of Elections. Now after the recent surge of cases and hospitalizations, I am no longer willing to risk my health and my life. I am 80 years old. I have a daughter with cancer who is severely immune compromised. Others in our group have health issues or family members who are compromised.”
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Chairman Banes “strongly” encouraged mask-wearing and social distancing as key ways identified by the Department of Health to protect the community from COVID-19.
Banes said the county’s mask ordinance is in line with the one adopted by Gov. Brian Kemp. He noted that no local order may exceed the governor’s executive order.
Newton’s mask ordinance asks that anyone in a public place abide by the ordinance if they do not fall under one of the exemptions outlined in the ordinance. The exemptions are broad and, in particular, do not require anyone entering a polling place to wear a mask, although most do.
The exemptions in the ordinance are listed below:
1. When Social Distancing is both possible and being actively practiced;
2. In personal vehicles;
3. On residential property;
4. On private property where the owner or legal occupant of the property does not consent to enforcement of this Ordinance (there shall be a presumption of consent to enforcement unless the owner/occupant affirmatively indicates otherwise);
5. If a medical provider has advised against the use of a face covering due to an underlying medical issue or because wearing such covering presents a health, safety, or security risk;
6. To the extent removal of the covering is necessary to receive personal services (e.g. haircuts or makeup);
7. To the extent removal of a covering is necessary to treat or examine a person subject to the direction of a medical professional;
8. When consuming food or beverages; however, a face covering shall be required when interacting with others who are not at an individual’s immediate table (i.e. fellow patrons, servers, staff, etc.);
9. To the extent temporary removal of the face cloth is necessary for the purposes of verifying a person’s identity for the purposes of law enforcement, purchasing alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs;
10.If a person is employed and working in their capacity as a governmental professional (i.e. public safety, fire, sanitation), or medical professional and is wearing more protective equipment or is otherwise prohibited from utilizing a face covering by the policy of their employer;
11. If an employer consults with an occupational safety and health professional who determines in writing that face coverings are not appropriate for employees, because of heat or other health related or safety concerns;
12. If wearing a mask poses a greater mental or physical health safety or security risk such as when a person has trouble breathing, is unconscious, is incapacitated, or is unable to remove or put on the face covering without assistance;
13. If an individual has a bona fide conscientious objection to the wearing of a face covering based upon health, ethical, or religious reasons; or
14. At any Polling Place, as defined under O.C.G.A. § 21-2-2(27), and no individual shall be denied ingress or egress to or from a Polling Place for failure to wear a face covering or face mask.