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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson adjusts his mask after the daily covid-19 press briefing on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Most Republican candidates running for the state Legislature in Northwest Arkansas either have reservations about the governor's mask mandate or oppose it outright.

Most of their Democratic opponents wish he had imposed it sooner. The mandate is an effort to help contain the spread of covid-19.

The candidates gave their opinions in response to a questionnaire sent to 26 candidates in contested races in the Nov. 3 general election. The candidates receiving the questions are all in districts that include at least some part of Benton or Washington County.

The first question was: "Do you agree with the governor's statewide mandate to wear masks? Explain when and how you came to your decision." Full, unedited answers are available at nwaonline.com/election.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced a statewide requirement to wear masks in public places in July. The mandate took effect July 20. The goal is to bring down the number of cases of covid-19, a virus that spreads primarily through droplets in people's breath.

"While I believe wearing a mask might help slow the spread of covid-19, I do not think a government mandate is the solution," Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, replied. "Business owners have the right to ask customers to wear a mask in their establishment. Those customers have a right to decide if they want to do business with those establishments. That's how freedom works."

Republican John Carr is running to replace departing lawmaker Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers. He said a mandate wasn't the best way to get the public to wear masks.

"Most Arkansans want to be part of the solution and will voluntarily assist when informed and asked politely," Carr answered. "Before the mask mandate, many individuals were social distancing on their own. Businesses were already becoming aware of the need of masks and had their employees start wearing masks. Then, they started politely asking their patrons to wear their masks as well."

Jed Duggar is running against incumbent Democrat Rep. Megan Godfrey of Springdale.

"I believe wearing a mask can help slow the spread of covid-19," he replied, but he opposed a mandate.

Delia Haak is the Republican running to replace Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville. Douglas didn't seek reelection. Haak favored communities making their own decisions based upon local conditions, given the wide differences and timing of the disease's outbreaks. Wide-ranging mandates are often inappropriate and inconsistent, she said.

"State government should support the rights of local communities, businesses, churches, and schools to require masks as local conditions dictate," Haak said.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, who's the governor's nephew, supported the mandate.

He "told the governor before he announced it that it was necessary given the community spread that was clearly growing unchecked in Arkansas," Hendren said.

Republican candidate Brian Hester is running against incumbent Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville.

"I don't know how much masks work to prevent the spread of covid-19, but if it gets us Razorback basketball then I am all in on wearing a mask," Hester said.

John LaTour is the Republican nominee against incumbent Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville.

"I agree we should all do all that we can to help every Arkansas citizen live a healthy life," he said.

Legislature left out

Two of the three Republicans who said the Legislature should have had a chance to weigh in on a mask mandate are incumbents.

"Setting aside the issue of masks, any government mandate restricting the freedoms of individuals is always concerning, especially the precedent that it sets for future government control," incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville said in his reply.

Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, said he supports and practices wearing a mask.

"I would have preferred the decision to have been made by the Legislature rather than by an executive order," he said.

Josh Bryant, a Benton County Quorum Court member running to replace departing Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, called the governor's decision well-meaning, but overreaching.

"I believe the governor was doing what he thought was best for the greater good of Arkansans; however, the mandate via an executive order was an overreach of our liberty," Bryant replied. "The order has resulted in confusion of its enforceability and has caused strife."

Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, represents a district that stretches as far north as Tontitown. "While I'd prefer that it hadn't been a mandate, I certainly understand why that decision was made," she said. "If we all do our part, the return to 'normal' will come more quickly."

The two Republican candidates who confirmed they received the questionnaires, but chose not to respond, were Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and first-time Republican nominee Kendon Underwood, who's running to replace Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers. Underwood defeated Della Rosa in the Republican primary.

Democrats in favor

None of the 12 Democrats who responded opposed the mandate.

"As soon as the data and research clearly showed that masks drastically reduce the spread of the virus, I knew a mandate was a key strategy to accomplish our goal of saving lives," Clowney said.

Michael Bennett-Spears, Lundstrum's Democratic challenger, said Hutchinson should have acted sooner.

"Controlling the virus is the best way to support our economy, support our schools and to get back to our individual lives," Bennett-Spears said.

Whitaker gave the mandate unstinting support. He is the secretary-elect of the House Democratic caucus.

"I was a supporter of the mandate very early on, as it became clear that public health experts agreed that it was one of the easiest and surest ways to contain the spread of the coronavirus," Whitaker said.

Godfrey said she had long urged the governor to act on a mask mandate.

"I agree with the governor's decision, and only wish he had acted earlier. It's the right thing to do, both for public health and as a powerful statement that we are committed to care for our more vulnerable neighbors," she said.

Kelly Ross Krout, also a Democrat, is running against Underwood.

"When it became widely understood that transmission was airborne and could be drastically reduced by the majority wearing masks, I was on board," she said.

Jon Comstock, who opposes Bryant, was another Democrat who wanted the governor to act on a mandate earlier.

"I try to follow the covid news updates, and it seems without doubt that the single best efforts to contain or limit the virus involve using masks, social distancing and washing hands with soap and water," he said.

Democrat Hawley Woods is running against Penzo.

"As soon as I began hearing about the virus, back in March, I had a high level of concern. I have friends who live internationally. I was pro-taking steps to protect ourselves from the very beginning," she said.

Lou Reed Sharp is the Democrat running against Fite. Sharp understands people's objections to masks, she said, but the threat to public health justifies the mandate.

"The government should not be in the business of telling people how to live their lives, unless it is an exceptional circumstance," she said. "I think that a global pandemic that threatens our freedom to do business together, to congregate together, to worship together meets that bar."

Nick Jones is running against Haak and believes the governor made the right decision.

"I agreed with the mandate when science showed us that masks can reduce the risk of spreading [or] catching covid-19 and help flatten the curve," he said.

Ronetta Francis is challenging Sen. Bart Hester's reelection.

"I was in agreement as soon as the mandate was issued," she said. "Considering Arkansas declared a state of emergency March 11 and CDC recommended specific guidelines to help slow the spread, I thought the governor's mandate was a very positive step in protecting Arkansans."

Daisy Bonilla, who also supports the mandate, is the Democratic challenger to Dotson.

"I, along with the rest of the NWA Latinx Task Force, had an opportunity to meet with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] when they were here. The CDC made a number of recommendations for reducing the spread of the virus, but the simplest one to follow is wearing a mask."

Jene Huffman-Gilreath, the Democratic nominee seeking to replace Petty, also agrees with Hutchinson.

"I was an early adopter of masks, because my sister is disabled and immune compromised, and my parents are nearing 70 and my sister's sole caregivers," she said.

Ryan Craig of Prairie Grove is Hendren's Democratic opponent for state Senate. At least four messages for him weren't returned. A printed questionnaire mailed to his home address, as listed in his candidate filing, also wasn't returned.

More News

Editor’s note

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent a questionnaire to the 26 legislative candidates in our region in contested races. A questionnaire was chosen because of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions on gatherings curtail the usual sources of information to voters such as debates, forums and “meet the candidate” events.

This is the first of six stories on their answers.

Candidate answers

The following is a summation of the answers candidates for the Arkansas Senate and House gave to the following question:

Do you agree with the governor’s statewide mandate to wear masks?

HOUSE DISTRICT 80

• Charlene Fite (R)*: Disagrees with mandate but understands decision.

• Lou Reed Sharp (D): Supports mandate in this exceptional circumstance.

HOUSE DISTRICT 85

• David Whitaker (D)*: Early supporter of mandate to slow spread.

• Brian Hester (R): Supports wearing masks if it helps life return to normal.

HOUSE DISTRICT 86

• Nicole Clowney (D)*: Mandate was key to saving lives.

• John LaTour (R): People should do all they can to keep others healthy.

HOUSE DISTRICT 87

• Robin Lundstrum (R)*: Government mandate is not the solution.

• Michael Bennett-Spears (D): Thinks governor didn’t act quickly enough.

HOUSE DISTRICT 88

• Clint Penzo (R)*: Should have been decided by Legislature.

• Hawley Woods (D): Supported mask mandate from beginning.

HOUSE DISTRICT 89

• Megan Godfrey (D)*: Supports mandate as the right thing to do.

• Jed Duggar (R): People should choose to wear a mask voluntarily.

HOUSE DISTRICT 90

• Kendon Underwood (R): Declined to participate in survey.

• Kelly Ross Krout (D): Supports mandate to reduce spread.

HOUSE DISTRICT 91

• Nick Jones (D): Supports the mandate to reduce the spread.

• Delia Haak (R): Decision should be left to communities.

HOUSE DISTRICT 93

• Jim Dotson (R)*: Should have been decided by Legislature.

• Daisy Bonilla (D): Supports the mandate per federal guidelines.

HOUSE DISTRICT 94

• John Carr (R): Prefers voluntary efforts.

• Jene Huffman-Gilreath (D): Supports mandate to protect community.

HOUSE DISTRICT 96

• Josh Bryant (R): Mandate via executive order was an overreach by governor.

• Jon Comstock (D): Supports the mandate to reduce spread.

SENATE DISTRICT 1

• Ronetta Francis (D): Supports mandate as positive step to protect people.

• Bart Hester (R)*: Declined to participate in survey.

SENATE DISTRICT 2

• Jim Hendren (R)*: Necessary given the public health threat.

• Ryan Craig (D): Did not reply to survey.

—————* denotes incumbent

Candidate answers

The following are the complete answers given by candidates for Arkansas Senate and House to the following question:

“Do you agree with the governor’s statewide mandate to wear masks? Explain when and how you came to your decision.”

Two of the candidates’ responses refer to the “CDC,” which stands for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An asterisk (*) by the candidate’s name signifies an incumbent.

House 80

Charlene Fite (R)* — “I wear a mask and recommend everyone wear a mask. While I’d prefer that it hadn’t been a mandate, I certainly understand why that decision was made. If we all do our part, the return to ‘normal’ will come more quickly. It means we can get back to school, visit our loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes and protect those with underlying health conditions. Of course, actions speak louder than words, so in order to help encourage participation, I ordered 500 masks to give away to anyone in District 80 who needs one.”

Lou Reed Sharp (D) — “I do agree with the governor’s statewide mandate to wear masks. I understand some folks feel like their freedom is infringed by the mask mandate, and I see their point. The government should not be in the business of telling people how to live their lives, unless it is an exceptional circumstance. I think that a global pandemic that threatens our freedom to do business together, to congregate together, to worship together meets that bar. Now that we know that a combination of social distancing and mask wearing slows the spread, we have a patriotic duty to implement that solution.”

House 85

David Whitaker (D)*— “The governor’s decision to mandate masks was the single most important and impactful public health decision in this state to date. I was a supporter of the mandate very early on, as it became clear that public health experts agreed that it was one of the easiest and surest ways to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The mask mandate is necessary and will save lives.”

Brian Hester (R) — “I don’t know how much masks work to prevent the spread of covid-19, but if it gets us Razorback basketball then I am all in on wearing a mask.”

House 86

Nicole Clowney (D)* — “I agree with the governor’s statewide mask mandate and was glad to see him take that step. As soon as the data and research clearly showed that masks drastically reduce the spread of the virus, I knew a mandate was a key strategy to accomplish our goal of saving lives. I was incredibly heartened to see Fayetteville take the lead, as it so often does, with its own mask ordinance, and set the example that the state went on to follow.”

John LaTour (R) — “I agree we should do all that we can to help every Arkansas citizen live a healthy life.”

House 87

Robin Lundstrum (R)* — “While I believe wearing a mask might help slow the spread of covid-19. I do not think a government mandate is the solution. Business owners have the right to ask customers to wear a mask in their establishment. Those customers have a right to decide if they want to do business with those establishments. That’s how freedom works. Government mandates create a slippery slope of some bureaucrats thinking they can micromanage our lives.”

Michael Bennett-Spears (D) — “I agree completely with the governor’s statewide mandate to wear masks. I’ve believed we needed this since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in order to keep Arkansans safe and allow us to get through this as quickly as possible. Controlling the virus is the best way to support our economy, support our schools and to get back to our individual lives.”

House 88

Clint Penzo (R)* — “I believe that wearing masks can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus from one person to another person. When I can’t maintain social distancing, I wear a mask. I would have preferred the decision to have been made by the Legislature rather than by an executive order.”

Hawley Woods (D) — “Yes, I do agree with the decision to mandate wearing masks. As soon as I began hearing about the virus, back in March, I had a high level of concern. I have friends who live internationally. I was pro-taking steps to protect ourselves from the very beginning.”

House 89

Megan Godfrey (D)* — “I began calling for a statewide mask requirement as soon as public health professionals made clear that it would save lives and help Arkansas get back to normal more quickly. I agree with the governor’s decision and only wish he had acted earlier. It’s the right thing to do, both for public health and as a powerful statement that we are committed to care for our more vulnerable neighbors.”

Jed Duggar (R) — “I believe wearing a mask can help slow the spread of covid-19. I personally wear a mask when in public places as recommended by our state health experts. This is a significant measure to help ensure public health and safety. I also believe a business owner has a right to require mask-wearing in their place of business. While I believe that our state government shouldn’t issue regulations that infringe on our constitutional rights, I believe it is equally important for each person in our community to exercise personal responsibility by choosing to wear a mask on their own when social distancing is not possible.”

House 90

Kendon Underwood (R) — Declined to participate in the survey.

Kelly Krout (D) — “Yes. When it became widely understood that transmission was airborne and could be drastically reduced by the majority wearing masks, I was on board.”

House 91

Nick Jones (D) — “Yes, I believe the governor made the right decision by issuing the mask mandate. I agreed with the mandate when science showed us that masks can reduce the risk of spreading/catching covid-19 and help flatten the curve.”

Delia Haak (R) — “At the beginning of the pandemic, information from the U.S. Surgeon General was that masks were important to protect the health of front line workers, but were not necessary for the general public. When the federal task force revised their recommendation that masks should be worn by everyone over the age of 10 years old, it created confusion and skepticism in the mind of the public at that time. The difficult question when requiring that masks be worn is how to enforce such a mandate. State government should support the rights of local communities, businesses, churches and schools to require masks as local conditions dictate.”

House 93

Jim Dotson (R)* — “Setting aside the issue of masks, any government mandate restricting the freedoms of individuals is always concerning, especially the precedent that it sets for future government control. This type of policy decision that impacts all people needs to be debated publicly and voted upon before being enacted. I also believe a mandate such as this should be tax exempt, that is why I will propose legislation to exempt the sale of manufactured masks from sales tax in Arkansas.”

Daisy Bonilla (D) — “I agree with the governor’s statewide mandate. I, along with the rest of the NWA Latinx Task Force, had an opportunity to meet with the CDC when they were here. The CDC made a number of recommendations for reducing the spread of the virus, but the simplest one to follow is wearing a mask. As we prepare for schools to reopen, teachers, students and our community members are scared of what education and work during a pandemic will look like. The best way to support our schools is to control the pandemic. It’s in the best interest of our schools and our state to implement consistent statewide prevention guidelines in order to protect one another to the best of our ability.”

House 94

John Carr (R) — “The best way to get most of the public to comply is through education. Most Arkansans want to be part of the solution and will voluntarily assist when informed and asked politely. Before the mask mandate, many individuals were social distancing on their own. Businesses were already becoming aware of the need of masks and had their employees start wearing masks. Then they started politely asking their patrons to wear their masks as well.”

Jene Huffman-Gilreath (D) — “I do agree with the governor’s statewide mask mandate. I was an early adopter of masks, because my sister is disabled and immune compromised and my parents are nearing 70 and my sister’s sole caregivers. There was enough anecdotal evidence and early research out of Europe and Asia showing that cloth masks helped reduce the spread of covid-19. While I wasn’t certain whether wearing a mask was protecting me or those around me more, I knew that wearing a mask could help reduce the risk of my sister getting covid-19 from me. I am a firm believer in science, and I also believe we should do everything we can to protect our community.”

House 96

Josh Bryant (R) — “I believe the governor was doing what he thought was best for the greater good of Arkansans; however, the mandate via an executive order was an overreach of our liberty. The order has resulted in confusion of its enforceability and has caused strife. I came to this conclusion as other states’ leaders were mandating masks and hoping ours would resist. The governor initially had resisted giving the order for several months, which would have allowed for a special legislative session to aid in this decision.”

Jon Comstock (D) — “Yes, I have supported since the day the governor announced and in fact was disappointed that he did not announce earlier. I try to follow the covid news updates, and it seems without doubt that the single best efforts to contain or limit the virus involve using masks, social distancing and washing hands with soap and water. We should do these things for all of our well-being.”

Senate 1

Ronetta Francis (D) — “Yes. I do agree with the governor’s mandate to wear masks. I was in agreement as soon as the mandate was issued. Considering Arkansas declared a state of emergency March 11 and CDC recommended specific guidelines to help slow the spread, I thought the governor’s mandate was a very positive step in protecting Arkansans.”

Bart Hester (R)* — Declined to participate in survey.

Senate 2

Jim Hendren (R)* — “Yes — I supported the mask mandate and told the governor before he announced it that it was necessary given the community spread that was clearly growing unchecked in Arkansas.”

Ryan Craig (D) — Did not reply to survey.

— NWA DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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