2022 Philippine Elections

Amid COVID-19 surge, Bacolod mayor urges face-to-face debate with challenger

Marchel Espina
Amid COVID-19 surge, Bacolod mayor urges face-to-face debate with challenger

DEBATE. Mayor Evelio Leonardia wants face-to-face, town hall debates even as COVID-19 cases surge in his city.

Bacolod City information office

The IATF has placed Bacolod under Alert Level 3 and the city's biggest referral center shows a 330% two-week hike in COVID-19 cases

BACOLOD CITY, Philippines — Mayor Evelio Leonardia is balking over format changes in a January 15 debate against mayoralty challenger, former Negros Occidental legislator Alfredo Benitez.

Leonardia released on Thursday, January 12, a letter of complaint to the University of the Philippines (UP) Law Alumni Association-Negros Occidental chapter, the main debate organizer.

“The live face-to-face town hall format to be held in University of St. La Salle combined with a virtual platform which we have already agreed has been totally altered to a purely virtual format,” said the letter, dated January 10, and signed by Leonardia’s debate coordinator George Zulueta.

It preceded by a few hours the national government’s move to place the city under Alert Level 3, but after the Department of Health Western Visayas’ tagged it a “high-risk” area for transmission of COVID-19. 

The Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital (CLMMRH), which tests samples from the city government, also released data on January 12, showing a 330% two-week growth rate in COVID-19 cases.

The mayor’s representative claimed a face-to-face format would allow the debaters to prove their ability in tackling issues without the help of teleprompters or aides.

Leonardia’s letter hinted at a possible withdrawal. While saying the mayor is  “willing and ready to participate in the debate,” it listed a slew of conditions, all premised on two candidates speaking on one stage – banning of notes and cellphones, documents and other aids, except a notepad for taking short notes.

The mayor’s camp offered to disinfect the debate venue, and suggested keeping debaters at least three meters and their companions seated with proper distance from each other.

Benitez, a billionaire businessman and consultant of the Negros Occidental provincial government since completing three congressional terms, said he is willing to debate anytime, any where, any way, but would defer to debate organizers.

“I was only invited by the organizers of the debate whose intention was to educate the voters. I will follow the format and mechanics set by the debate organizers,” he said in Ilonggo.

Mayoralty challenger Albee Benitez says he will respect debate organizers’ rules. (Courtesy of Albee Benitez)

The organizing committee, in a statement, said that while a face-to-face debate “may appear to be more exciting,” the current COVID-19 surge could make it dangerous.

They said the invitations for the virtual event were sent to all candidates for mayor of Bacolod City and governor of Negros Occidental, “based on the mechanics we designed, and mindful of health and safety issues.”

“We reiterate that with the current surge of Covid cases the past days reaching a record high of positivity rate of 44% and of daily cases of 33,000 (on the national level), the highest since the pandemic started two years ago, these considerations remain paramount. We will thus maintain a virtual debate via Zoom and live-streamed on Facebook on Saturday, Jan. 15, as originally indicated in our letter invitation dated 30 October 2021.”

Rappler asked the city information office, which released the letter, if Leonardia stands by his demand despite the IATF designation, but did not receive reply. We will update when the mayor responds. – Rappler.com

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