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Chamber of Commerce confident in COVID-19 safety protocols at Tuesday night forum

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Despite Salisbury Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins’ decision to leave its candidate forum Tuesday night due to health concerns, the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce says it is confident in COVID-19 safety measures taken.

Elaine Spalding, the chamber’s president, said the setup of the forum was communicated multiple times before the forum to all candidates, including Heggins, along with required COVID-19 safety precautions.

Heggins concluded her opening remarks Tuesday night by citing concerns that candidates weren’t wearing masks during the forum. She noted her departure wasn’t intended to be a political statement, and before leaving the forum, she challenged Warren to participate in a virtual debate with her. Via her campaign Facebook Tuesday night, Heggins said she made the right decision for her health, the health of her family and the health of her community.

“It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do everything possible to NOT spread COVID-19,” Heggins wrote. “My mask protects you, and your mask protects me. Let’s protect each other!”

She received praise from core supporters for leaving the forum. Heggins did not respond to a request from the Post on Wednesday for further comments on her decision.

Both candidates for the House District 77 race were not present at Tuesday night’s forum. Keith Townsend, the Democrat challenging Rep. Julia Howard, stated in a post from his campaign Facebook page that he wouldn’t be participating, citing health concerns.

“I cannot, in good conscience, attend an extended indoor event where masks are not required,” he said. “This week the chamber changed a virtual event to a live event. Candidates were given no options. Be smart, be safe and protect others.”

Howard noted she wasn’t attending due to a meeting conflict in Raleigh.

Besides Heggins, all other candidates who attended the forum stayed for its entirety.

Tuesday night’s forum was void of an in-person audience, and the attendance included no more than a dozen people, including the candidates, chamber staff, the moderator and two members of the media. All who attended were required to have their temperature taken upon entering and provide a signed COVID-19 protocol form, which asked basic screening questions such as whether the individual had been tested within the last 14 days or had a cough, fever or loss of taste. It also asks if they had been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Additionally, candidates were required to wear a mask when entering the theatre and until they were seated on stage. Once seated, candidates were spaced apart and separated by plexiglass dividers. No one shook hands.

Spalding said the chamber consulted multiple health professionals prior to the forum, including the forum’s moderator, Dari Caldwell, who is the former president of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

“We felt like we did everything we could to protect the candidates,” Spalding said.

Nonetheless, Spalding said the chamber encourages anyone to take care of their health and the health of their families.

Spalding also reminded the community that the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce does not endorse candidates, but organizes forums such as Tuesday night’s as a service to the community. She encouraged locals to view the forum on the chamber’s Facebook page or via WSRG-TV (formerly Access 16), which will re-broadcast the forum several times prior to Nov. 3.

She also encouraged everyone to stay informed on the candidates and vote before or on Election Day.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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