SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The fight over mask and vaccine mandates moved to the center of California's looming recall election Friday, with candidate Larry Elder promising to swiftly roll back sweeping government orders while Democrats denounced the leading Republican as a science skeptic who would endanger public health.
Elder, in his first press conference since announcing his candidacy July 12, told reporters that if he replaces Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the Sept. 14 election, then any mask or vaccine mandates in place at that time "will be suspended right away."
Elder stressed during the online gathering that his remarks were focused on what he would do as governor regarding state employees, and private businesses would be free to set their own standards.
"At the state level, I'm not going to require any kind of public worker to wear masks, any kind of public worker to have a vaccine. I think that's an assault on freedom," Elder added.
Elder, a 69-year-old attorney, said he was vaccinated at the suggestion of his doctor, given a blood condition and other factors.
"I believe vaccines work and I believe that if you're in a high-risk category, you should be vaccinated. But there are many Americans who disagree with me, feel that the vaccine was done too quickly," he said, referring to the emergency use authorization under which the vaccines were quickly approved by federal regulators.
Earlier this week, Newsom announced that California will require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, amid growing concerns about the highly contagious delta variant.
Previously, the governor mandated that all health care workers must be fully vaccinated and required that all state employees get vaccinated or choose weekly testing. The weekly testing schedule is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In San Francisco, Newsom depicted Elder as an extremist who "doesn't believe in mask wearing" and would presage a return to the depths of the pandemic by lifting requirements for hundreds of thousands of workers.
He made the remarks while visiting campaign volunteers, who were sitting at tables outside a restaurant sending text messages to voters urging them to oppose the recall that could remove Newsom from office.
He was joined by city Democratic leaders including Board of Equalization member Malia Cohen, who urged Democrats to unite to "fight a much greater enemy ... the enemy of science deniers," an obvious swipe at Elder.
The friction over mask wearing and vaccines mirrors a national uproar that has highlighted ideological and political divides. In South Carolina, for example, Gov. Henry McMaster is threatening to withhold funding to schools in his state's capital of Columbia over masking rules, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to enforce a similar order against mask mandates that could put him in conflict with Dallas and other large school districts.
In his remarks to volunteers, Newsom focused largely on Elder, who since joining the race has emerged as the front-runner in fundraising and polling, outdistancing 23 other Republicans on the ballot.
The first-term Democrat once seen as a likely presidential prospect issued an ominous warning about his possible ouster in the heavily Democratic state, saying the minimum wage would be eliminated and other progressive policies endangered. That, in turn, could domino around the country.
"Larry Elder is running away with this on the other side," he said.
During his visit, Newsom sat down at a computer to take a turn connecting with voters he hopes will return their mail ballots, which already are reaching homes. He'll hold similar events around the state through the weekend.
In other campaign activity Friday, Republican businessman John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018, was in San Diego to promote his proposed $30 billion tax cut. "When I'm governor we are going to implement the largest tax cut in state history," he said in a statement.
Another Republican, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, stopped in the Los Angeles suburbs to fault Newsom for spiking crime rates and the dire homeless crisis. "Gavin Newsom has failed communities across our state. If we want things to change, we need a leader," Faulconer said.