Beshear not considering reinstating statewide mask mandate despite COVID case surge

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As the threat of COVID-19 continues to worsen in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday said he is not at the point of considering a statewide vaccine mandate or reconsidering a mask mandate.

“I am not currently considering reinstating the mask mandate,” he said in the state Capitol during a news conference. But reinstating it isn’t out of the question: “It’s on the table if needed.”

Likewise, with a statewide vaccine mandate, “Right now, I don’t think a mandate from me would necessarily get those that have been unwilling to get vaccinated, vaccinated,” he said.

Kentucky is poised to have its fifth-straight week of escalating coronavirus cases and a rising positivity rate, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. On Wednesday, the state reported almost 1,600 new cases, up from 215 on July 1. Likewise, the positivity rate hit 8.29%, up from 1.99% at the first of the month.

Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack noted that the incidence rate of new cases of the virus across the commonwealth has grown almost 7-times in the last five weeks.

Beshear’s resistance to statewide mandates came less than a day after he reinstituted a mask mandate for all state employees when indoors working around others, as well as visitors to state buildings.

The new requirement came on the heels of a shift in guidance on Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal health agency is now recommending universal masking, including by fully-vaccinated people, in parts of the country where spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant is considered dangerously “high” or “substantial.” According to the CDC, that’s more than 85% of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

Included in that CDC guidance was a recommendation that K-12 schools return to universal masking for staff and students, regardless of vaccination status. Beshear piggybacked on that recommendation on Thursday, modifying his initial recommendation to match the CDC’s. The governor had originally said schools should consider that option, or at the very least, require that all unvaccinated students mask at all times. He’s now asking for universal masking, though it is not a mandate.

On the new guidance for state employees, Beshear said that high level of community transmission puts the state’s operation of essential services in jeopardy. “It puts our workforce at risk. It puts your health at risk and it puts at risk our ability to provide services that are desperately needed in-person to the people of the commonwealth,” he said Wednesday.

Already, a host of Republican-led state agencies and constitutional officers are bucking and bristling at the new mandate, including the Legislative Research Commission and the Department of Agriculture. In an internal email to KDA employees Thursday morning, hours after Beshear announced the mandate, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles’ chief of staff told workers they were not required to follow the new rule.

“KDA will not implement nor enforce Beshear’s mandate and will continue to leave it up to employees to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask while at work,” Quarles’ Chief of Staff Keith Rogers wrote in an 8 a.m. email shared with the Herald-Leader.

Quarles admonished Beshear repeatedly for his statewide mask mandate while it was in effect and after the governor lifted it. On Wednesday, he tweeted, “There should be no mask mandate in Kentucky. We don’t need another round of shutdowns. We don’t need more threats from the governor,” He instead called on more Kentuckians to get vaccinated, though he said it should be an “individual choice.”

But those who are choosing to get a shot now aren’t doing so fast enough. Kentucky’s rate of vaccination has stalled at roughly 51%, and in most of the state’s 120 counties, 60% or more of residents are not vaccinated. Beshear noted there has been a “slight uptick” in new vaccinations; the state saw a 6.4% in shots administered between July 21 and July 28 compared to the previous week, according to the Department for Public Health.

Though Beshear has balked at mandating vaccines statewide, some privately-owned businesses have begun to adopt the requirement. On Thursday, Med Center Health in Bowling Green announced it was requiring all hospital staff and people who work within the health center system to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Med Center, like many other hospitals across Kentucky, has reported a sharp uptick in coronavirus-related hospitalizations in recent weeks. Statewide, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 ballooned from 201 on July 1 to 571 on July 19.

CEO and President Connie Smith said mandating that staff be vaccinated was “the right thing to do,” and makes Med Center the second hospital system in the commonwealth to take such a step. Smith and Medical Director Dr. William Moss called on other health care facilities across the state to follow suit.

Beshear on Thursday threw his support behind that choice. “I support them and their decision to do it,” he said. “I will stand with them against any criticism they see.”

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