COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for making the issue of wearing masks "political" during a standoff over whether cloth face coverings were required in the county election office.
Democrats blasted a Republican Party member’s practice of wearing a face shield while monitoring the processing of absentee ballots for the Jan. 5 runoff election earlier this week.
County Democratic Chairman Ryan Barrett said his party’s members feel the shield does not adequately protect them from COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control does not consider a face shield an "effective barrier to transmission,” said Barrett, who has worked as a cardiac and emergency room technician for 18 years.
He said he was directing Democratic Party appointees not to return to adjudicate unclear votes on ballots "until we hear concretely that their safety will be made a priority and a face covering that is in compliance with CDC guidelines" which state a face shield "is not an effective barrier to transmission."
"I believe that the Board of Elections will have to make alternative arrangements to ensure a fair processing method should they not be able to guarantee the safety of the community," he told a reporter.
"I feel this is an issue of public safety that has been made political — and I, for one, refuse to have the lives of others on my conscience because of poor decision making," Barrett said.
Republican Party Chairman Scott Jay, whose wife Leesha was the one wearing the shield, said Democrats were making the issue "political" by being overly verbally abusive about his appointees not wearing masks when numerous exemptions exist in an ordinance mandating face coverings in county buildings.
Jay said other Republican volunteer monitors who were not wearing masks also were within the law — though they later donned face coverings after one Democratic monitor repeatedly loudly protested.
He said the elections board is required to have representatives from each party on the review panel to adjudicate unclear votes on ballots.
"It has come to my attention ... that the Republican Party appointments to the (Board of Elections) have been verbally assaulted," Jay said in an email to election board chairman Phil Johnson.
"I know that tensions can be high and brought about in many different ways but this is way beyond civil discourse and must be addressed and stopped!" Jay wrote.
"This outburst (Monday) towards the Republican volunteers was beyond the pale and I demand that the Democrat Party chairman do a better job to ensure that they provide rational and reasonable volunteers."
LAW FILLED WITH EXEMPTIONS
The county mask ordinance is filled with numerous exemptions.
Exceptions are made for those who object on religious or ethical grounds or for health reasons. Those practicing social distancing when it was “both possible and being actively practiced” also do not have to wear masks, the ordinance states.
County employees could remove masks while working in offices that are not in public areas in county buildings, according to an attorney who helped craft the ordinance.
County spokesman Bryan Fazio noted that signs stating that masks must be worn are posted at the entrance to the county administration building.
He said a department head or supervisor is directed to alert someone not wearing a mask in their area about the existence of the ordinance. Enforcement then would fall to sheriff’s deputies who are in charge of building security, Fazio said.
However, deputies on Tuesday, Dec. 22, said the face shield Mrs. Jay wore was allowed under the ordinance.
SAFETY OR “CONTROL” OF AGENDA?
Barrett said the issue was the safety of those monitoring the absentee ballots.
He told Johnson that Democratic members of the voter review panel and absentee ballot processing monitors have been forced to "walk out of the early vote tabulation because of a compromise in their safety."
"As a healthcare professional, I am seeing day in and day out staggering numbers of individuals who are in the emergency room and ICU battling COVID-19," Barrett said.
"With (an) already strapped volunteer and staff force to run this election, it would be my presumption that the Board of Elections would be unified in the effort to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved."
He said the county party has eight members who rotate in serving as voter review panel members and monitors.
"I cannot in good faith ask any of them to return to continue the processing and adjudicating of ballots for this election," he said.
Barrett said he understood from a source — identified by Republican members as Democratic Party executive committee member Gene Wills — that GOP board member Dustin Thompson instructed individuals to “do as they please” about complying with the ordinance “placing the lives of a vulnerable population on the line."
Thompson denied Barrett’s claim and said Mrs. Jay was the only Republican monitor present Monday when he clarified with deputies that her face shield complied with the ordinance.
He said all Republican attendees Monday “wore legal masks as requested for the entire day.”
Thompson also said Barrett, who was not at the election office Monday, should “check with his source of information for better clarity.”
“What’s more concerning is that (the source’s) lie inadvertently suggests that my actions intentionally place others’ lives at risk. This nonsense has crossed the line,” he said.
Wills could not be immediately reached for comment.
Jay said that local Democrats' actions have shown the party has become "unhinged" because the party's chairman is makeing claims about Republicans endangering lives and others verbally abusing members of the opposing party.
"I don't know what this new game is," Jay said.
He said he believed it was "their way of trying to control the agenda" now that Democrats hold most of the countywide offices following the Nov. 3 election.
"They're saying, "We're loud, proud and in charge,'" Jay said.
He said he planned to continue to have his party's representatives available for monitoring and voter review because of the importance of the work.
Johnson said he sent an email to each party chairman stating "we have to work together on this election."
However, he said election workers also have a mandate to finish processing absentee ballots and begin counting them after polls close on Jan. 5.
"We've got to move forward," Johnson said.