Disdain for the people

2/10/2022, 6 p.m.
We are gravely concerned by the growing disdain the Youngkin administration and his GOP and Democratic supporters have for the ...

We are gravely concerned by the growing disdain the Youngkin administration and his GOP and Democratic supporters have for the people of the Commonwealth.

On Tuesday, the state Senate passed an amendment that would bar school mask mandates.

The vote: 29-9.

Ten of the Senate’s 21 Democrats joined with Republicans to approve the amendment, which would give parents the right to choose whether their children will wear masks at school. The amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax, which was added to a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant of Henrico requiring public schools to teach in-person classes.

Sen. Petersen told reporters on Tuesday that he agrees with Gov. Youngkin’s determination that masks should be optional in schools, but that it should be written into law and not merely an executive order as issued by the governor last month on his first day in office.

Then on Wednesday, the amended bill passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote, with fewer Democrats ultimately supporting the bill on final passage. However, the measure is likely to become state law as the House of Delegates, which now will consider the measure, is controlled by Republicans.

This is a new low for our state and for the Democrats who have control of the 40-member Senate. By making masks optional, lawmakers are jeopardizing the health and safety of our schoolchildren, teachers and staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Check the numbers. Nationally, the death toll from the virus and its latest highly transmissible omicron variant has exceeded 903,000. In Virginia, more than 17,300 lives have been claimed.

Health officials now are raising concerns about BA.2, the new “stealth” variant of omicron that possibly is headed our way. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health professionals stress that the best ways for people to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus and its potential long-term effects are to wear a mask and get vaccinated.

According to the latest statistics, 1 in 5 people tested for COVID-19 in the state are coming up positive. While those numbers have receded from the recent 35 percent positivity rate in the state, lifting a mask mandate can leave millions of Virginians unprotected when they need it the most.

For state lawmakers to join those who, like Gov. Youngkin, eschew science in the name of parents’ rights and personal freedom signals a disregard for human life and a failure to protect our most vulnerable. This is particularly dire for African-Americans and other people of color who continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus, in terms of deaths and number of cases.

We applaud Richmond Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan for standing up with eight other Democratic senators and voting against Sen. Petersen’s amendment. She was joined in opposition by Virginia Legislative Black Caucus colleagues Sen. L. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, who also voted against the final version of the bill on Wednesday.

Sen. Joseph “Joe” Morrissey and Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi, both Democrats who represent portions of Richmond, voted for the optional mask amendment, along with VLBC member Sen. Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake.

On Wednesday, Sen. Morrissey voted for the bill’s final passage, while Sen. Hashmi and Sen. Spruill voted against it.

This legislative gambit simply adds to the confusion that sprang up from Gov. Youngkin’s Jan. 15 executive order banning school systems from enforcing mask mandates in the classroom. The issue is being hashed out in court, where several lawsuits have been filed.

A poll conducted in September by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University found that a majority of Virginians – 71 percent – supported mask mandates in K-12 public schools.

There was no surprise that the poll also showed a deep divide on the issue among Republicans and Democrats as well as between minorities and white people in the state.

According to the poll, 94 percent of Democrats supported the last administration’s mask mandate in public schools compared to 43 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans. Additionally, 83 percent of minority and Hispanic respondents were supportive of the mandate compared to 64 percent of white, non-Hispanic Virginians.

This begs the question of whether Democratic lawmakers who oppose the mask ban are thwarting the values espoused by their constituents.

The health and safety of our loved ones are of utmost concern during this pandemic. Voters will remember this.