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May 19, 2020

Montgomery County commissioners clash over face masks during COVID-19 briefing

Board chair Dr. Valerie Arkoosh criticized Republican Joe Gale after appearance at veterans memorial event

Politics COVID-19
Arkoosh Gale Montco Source/

Montgomery County Commissioners Dr. Valerie Arkoosh (left) and Joe Gale (right) argued during a COVID-19 press briefing on May 18, 2020. Arkoosh chided Gale for not wearing a mask while attending a flag event for veterans at St. Matthews Cemetery in Conshohocken.

Montgomery County Commissioners Dr. Valerie Arkoosh and Joe Gale got into a tense exchange Monday during a daily coronavirus press briefing, chastising one another over the importance of wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Arkoosh, a Democrat and the chair of the Board of Commissioners, criticized Gale, a Republican, for failing to wear a mask during an event honoring veterans at St. Matthews Cemetery in Conshohocken over the weekend.

Gale's choice not to wear a mask was compounded by the fact that fellow Commissioner Ken Lawrence learned on Mother's Day that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Lawrence has been asymptomatic, but reportedly had exposed both Arkoosh and Gale. 

"I am putting on my doctor hat when I say the following," Arkoosh said. "Commissioner Gale is known to have had direct exposure to someone who is confirmed positive for COVID-19."

At the event, Gale handed out miniature flags to be placed at the graves of veterans. Funds for 1,000 flags were raised by the local VFW in Conshohocken after Arkoosh and Lawrence voted not to release 59,000 county-owned flags until July 4. The gathering was covered locally by 6ABC

Arkoosh chastised Gale for not wearing a mask even as he's publicly refused to be tested for COVID-19.

"He was personally handing a number of individuals who are older age and at highest risk for a serious complication from COVID-19 — he was personally handing them flags with no gloves on and closer than six feet to them," Arkoosh said. "Commissioner Gale should still be in quarantine. Having not been tested, he should be in quarantine for 14 days. I just want to urge others not to copy this type of behavior."

Gale fired back at Arkoosh when she finished her remarks.

"You can mask shame me all you want," Gale said. "I'm not going to sit here and be bullied for honoring fallen veterans. Enough already with the mask shaming, the mask bullying and creating mass hysteria. You don't need a hazmat suit, gloves and a mask to put American flags outdoors at a cemetery. So what you just said was ridiculous."

Gale said he has told people to use their own judgment about whether to wear a mask.

"A mask was not necessary, in my opinion," Gale said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the public to wear cloth masks as a form of protecting one another from the coronavirus. Masks help limit the risk of transmission from those who are wearing them and are seen as a simple preventative measure. They are required to be worn at grocery stores and other life-sustaining businesses that remain open in Pennsylvania.

Montgomery County has made progress reducing the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks, as Arkoosh highlighted with a graph during Monday's briefing. The county has recorded 5,963 confirmed cases and 529 deaths. Daily counts of new cases have declined and dipped below 100 per day over the last 14 days.

"This downward trend is the result of the many, many personal sacrifices so many of you have made over these last number of weeks," Arkoosh said. "We are continuing to meaningfully reduce the numbers of new cases in the county, but given the amount of virus still in our midst, without continued social distancing, these numbers could quickly change and move in the wrong direction."

To keep the county on track, Arkoosh asked residents to keep wearing masks.

"This is about having respect for your community and respect for those individuals who might be fighting cancer or are otherwise immuno-compromised," Arkoosh said. "But they still need to buy groceries, they still need to go to the drug store and they still need gas in their car – just like you do. Out of respect for them, please wear a mask."