Virginia’s major-party gubernatorial candidates shared starkly different views about the need to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or testing for state employees and students in higher education while speaking during a joint appearance in Northern Virginia on Wednesday.
During a luncheon at the Ritz Carlton in Tysons sponsored by the Virginia Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit made up of state business leaders, all six Democratic and Republican statewide candidates in this fall’s election shared their respective visions of the state and outlined policies they plan to implement if elected.
The candidates spoke separately to the audience, not in a debate-style format.
Gubernatorial candidates Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, and Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who served as governor from 2014-18, outlined differences on a number of issues, but none was more stark than the idea of governments requiring mask-wearing, COVID-19 testing or vaccinations.
During his remarks, McAuliffe said he agrees with current Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate in K-12 schools, along with his requirement to mandate COVID tests or vaccines for state employees. McAuliffe also supports mandating vaccines for students in Virginia’s state-supported colleges and universities.
“If we do not stop it [COVID] now, it’ll be crippling to our economy, our schools will close,” McAuliffe said.
After McAuliffe’s speech, Youngkin pushed back on the notion that the government should require students to wear masks or that anyone should be compelled to get vaccinated. Youngkin said he is a strong proponent of people being vaccinated but said he would not impose a vaccine mandate.
“I've gotten the vaccine and I believe you should, too, but that's a decision you should make,” Youngkin said.
Youngkin’s statements come a week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Youngkin has continually expressed his opposition to mask mandates, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. Rather than impose mandates, Youngkin said the state should increase access to the vaccine and educate people about its benefits.
“We can do this by being proactive and talking to Virginians about the merits of the vaccine,” Youngkin said.
Virginia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. A recent poll by Crooked Media/Change Research, which surveyed 1,653 likely voters in Virginia from Aug. 17-21, found that nearly 60% of likely voters favor mask mandates and vaccination mandates in most settings in which they’re being implemented or proposed. It also found that 57% percent of voters said they were in favor of requiring all students to be vaccinated once the FDA approves the vaccines for children under the age of 12, and 64% said they favored allowing businesses to mandate vaccines for their employees if they work together indoors.
Also speaking at the luncheon were the candidates for lieutenant governor, Democratic Del. Hala Ayala from Prince William County and Republican Winsome Sears, and attorney general candidates Mark Herring, a Democrat seeking re-election to a third term, and Republican Del. Jason Miyares.
Ayala, a cybersecurity specialist, stressed her record in the state legislature of reaching across the aisle and promoting bipartisan legislation to help small businesses, including legislation that would allow patrons to buy and carry beverages throughout designated outdoor refreshment areas.
Her opponent, Sears, the first black female Republican to become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002–2004, focused on public safety and eliminating gun control laws she claimed would infringe on the right to self-defense. Sears said African Americans have historically been denied their Second Amendment rights.
“And I want to tell you that the first gun laws were against black people,” Sears said. “We could not own guns. And in fact, none other than Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed carry. He wanted to have a gun and he was denied.”
Herring, from Leesburg, also addressed gun control laws and highlighted his record as a proponent of common-sense gun safety measures.
“I've been leading the effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people, not only by helping to get gun safety laws passed, but also by assembling a team of prosecutors to crack down on gun runners and felons with firearms, which today has prosecuted over 100 firearms and gun crimes, including violent crimes in both state and federal courts,” Herring said.
Miyares, who has been a member of the House since 2016, took direct aim at Herring’s record on public safety and gun control, claiming there has been a recent “crime explosion in Virginia,” for which he blamed Herring and Democratic policies.
“Our murder rates the highest it’s been in decades – while crime is up cops are down. We've seen a mass exodus in police forces around the Commonwealth,” Miyares said.
According to the 2020 Crime in Virginia Report, although the number of reported homicides increased from 428 to 528 (23.4%), overall, Virginia experienced a 1.9% decrease in violent crime offenses compared to 2019. There were 15,713 violent crime offenses reported in 2020 compared to 16,018 violent crime offenses in 2019.