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Editorial: Polarization reaches new depths in gubernatorial race

It’s a strange world when two candidates for the same office post identical graphics to make a political point, but it’s exactly the one we find ourselves in.

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper’s social media campaign accounts posted a graphic that included a quote from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in which the Republican said, “I would lift the mask mandate for the state.” The words “lift the mask mandate” are colored in red on the Facebook version while all of the text is white on Twitter. A  black and white photo of Forest accompanies the quote on both.

On both Facebook and Twitter, Cooper, the Democratic incumbent, posted the graphic first. With it, Cooper said, “Dan Forest would set us back in the fight against COVID-19.”

Forest’s team appears to have simply copied and pasted the graphic onto his social media accounts minutes later as if to say “Yes, that’s correct.”

In both cases, Forest’s posts got more “likes” and “loves.”

It’s hard to think of an example to better show how polarized the country has become. That is, the gap in political attitudes between left- and right-leaning voters has grown so large that the same quotes inspire opposite opinions and action.

Cooper’s likely intent was to show Forest would endanger the moderate COVID-19 outbreak North Carolina has seen.

By copying and pasting the same graphic, Forest thumbed his nose at the fact that masks are one part of preventing a worsened outbreak. Forest says he prefers to put his faith in personal responsibility and the government trusting people and businesses to do what’s best.

Maybe there’s a point in the near future at which the state can lift its mask mandate and trust individuals to do the right thing. Already, enforcement mechanisms for the mandate do not involve criminal penalties and law enforcement has made it clear they do not intend to penalize businesses with fines unless there are egregious examples.

But that time isn’t now.  The country is still in the middle of the pandemic, and wearing masks is one part of a trio of things the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to mitigate coronavirus spread. Lifting the mandate entirely sends the wrong message about the state of the outbreak.

“Wearing masks can help communities slow the spread of COVID-19 when worn consistently and correctly by a majority of people in public settings and when masks are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent handwashing and cleaning and disinfecting,” the CDC says.

Yes, there are many other issues about which Forest and Cooper should be talking — budget priorities, health care, education and strategies for business growth.

But COVID-19 is top-of-mind for voters as well as candidates, and it’s something with which every voter has a personal experience. For some, it’s as simple as having to wear a mask and change daily habits. For others, it means family members and friends dying, shuttering their businesses or losing their jobs. So, as long as it continues to infect, hospitalize and kill people as well as result in negative economic effects, it will remain at or near the top of the debate between the two candidates. Make no mistake, coronavirus will be an issue on which many voters will base their final decision this year.

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