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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regretted signing a law banning local mask mandates as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in his state.
The Republican was asked at a press conference Tuesday why he signed the ban. He replied, “Our cases were at a low point. Everything has changed now, and yes, in hindsight, I wish that had not become law, but it is the law, and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation.”
The governor has called the state Legislature back for a special session in an attempt to change the law to allow local school districts to enact their own rules to protect younger students who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
"The local school districts should make the call, and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education,” Hutchinson said at the press conference.
Hutchinson added that he knew the Legislature would have overridden him if he didn’t sign the law, calling into doubt the appetite for the changes the governor requested. He allowed the state’s mask mandate to lapse in March.
According to tracking from the New York Times, over the last 14 days Arkansas has seen a 69 percent increase in cases and a 52 percent increase in hospitalizations. According to the state's health department tracking, 260 patients being treated for the virus were on ventilators, the most since the all-time high of 268 in early January.
Only 37 percent of Arkansas residents have been fully vaccinated, one of the lower rates in the country, but Hutchinson said Tuesday that demand was increasing. In April, he signed into law a bill preventing state and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination to access their services.
“I think we’ve seen a sea change in attitude, a sea [change] in action, more importantly, of people stepping up to the plate and recognizing it’s important for their health,” said Hutchinson of vaccinations in the state. “I think you’re also seeing more people trying to get accurate information.”
Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas’s health secretary, said during the Tuesday press conference that cases had exploded among young residents, saying 19 percent of the current cases were among those under 18, and referring to the data as “sobering news.” Romero added that while there was no mask mandate for children, he “clearly” recommended it as students returned to class.
Two Arkansas parents have sued the state in an attempt to get a judge to temporarily block the rule, allowing schools to require masks. Other states have also passed legislation or signed executive orders banning masks in schools. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said Sunday that students “can’t learn” when they wear masks. A Florida school district reversed its decision to mandate masks after GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from schools that required face coverings.
On Tuesday, the White House was critical of DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as their states have contributed an outsized share of new COVID-19 cases. Press secretary Jen Psaki said, “If you aren’t going to help, if you aren’t going to abide by public health guidance, then get out of the way and let people do the right thing.” She later clarified that she meant: “That means don’t ban, don’t make it harder for people to put requirements on masks — or asking for vaccination status — into law.”
Despite the rise in cases, Hutchinson also asked the Legislature to affirm the state’s decision to end participation in federal unemployment and pandemic relief programs, saying, “It is more important that we reduce the number of unemployed and put more people to work than it is for the state to accept any federal relief programs related to unemployment.” A number of states began cutting the expanded benefits in June, but there is little evidence that the lack of support for the jobless has helped lower unemployment rates.
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