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A year of mask-wearing and social distancing ends Friday, as Kentuckians were given clearance to stop taking routine precautions against spread of COVID-19 for the first time since the virus initially invaded the state.
Gov. Andy Beshear first required masks be worn in public places and around others outside one’s household in July of 2020 as a way to blunt the spread of the disease and has renewed that order each month since.
On Friday, that order was lifted, along with restrictions on crowd capacity in restaurants and most other businesses, ripping off the state’s COVID-19 protective band-aid.
The band-aid had already started peeling. Over the past few months, Beshear has slowly been unraveling his orders as the state has readied itself to ditch its cautious habits built over the past year.
In mid-May, the state’s contingency of people who’ve received at least two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine were given the green light to stop wearing masks. Beshear backed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation, telling people it was safe to go maskless in most indoor and outdoor settings. Masks are still to be worn in places where people are most vulnerable, such as hospitals, long-term care facilities and public transportation.
Roughly 47% of the state population has received at least one dose, to date — nearly 2.1 million people. It’s a far cry from herd immunity, which experts say is reached when at least 65% percent of a population is immunized, but it’s high enough to have markedly slowed the spread of the deadly disease. The number of new infections, the positivity rate and coronavirus hospitalizations have dropped week over week for more than a month.
Even though the overall vaccination rate is slowing, new case rates continue to decline. Beshear has cited both as reasons for lifting restrictions, though it’s a shift from the initial goal he set for the state. Earlier this spring, the governor said he wouldn’t pull back on his COVID-19 rules until 2.5 million people received at least their first dose. After mounting political pressure from Republicans and a shift in guidance from the CDC, he announced on May 14 he would lift all restrictions June 11.
A political football
Among the governor’s most vocal critics was Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a potential 2023 gubernatorial candidate, who went on a statewide tour to talk to restaurant owners while demanding Beshear set a date for reopening.
“After more than a year of governing by executive fiat, Governor Andrew Beshear has finally decided to follow the law — something he should have done from the beginning,” Quarles said. “Because of his actions, Kentucky is one of the last states in the country to fully reopen.”
Quarles was not alone; Many Republicans across the state have long chafed at Beshear’s orders. Some conservatives began protesting at the Capitol in April of 2020 and have continued to apply pressure on Beshear and elected officials since, reaching a fever pitch when several citizens petitioned to impeach the governor over his handling of the pandemic.
In the first week of this year’s legislative session, Republicans passed bills in an effort to lift most of the state’s restrictions on businesses. Those laws have been tied up in court since February. Meanwhile, Republicans accused Beshear of holding the state “hostage.”
“We took away so much that was unnecessary,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville. “Especially from our kids.”
Amid that pressure, and as new case rates dropped and the number of vaccinated Kentuckians rose in the spring, Beshear incrementally loosened coronavirus restrictions.
Late last month, he gave businesses and event spaces the go-ahead to to expand to 75% capacity, up from 60%, bar seating at bars and restaurants was allowed again, and those establishments were given the choice to stay open longer. As of Friday, restaurants and bars can return to 100% capacity.
“I know that Gov. Beshear has saved lives with his careful, thoughtful and scientifically supported decisions throughout the pandemic,” said Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green. “I’m confident he’s taken a similar scientific, data-driven decision when it came to lifting the restrictions.”
Not everyone may be comfortable with returning to a pre-pandemic normal, despite the fact that vaccinations have proven to be extremely effective. Minter, who lives in a county where only 35 percent of the population is vaccinated, said people can keep wearing masks if they are uncomfortable and encouraged people to get vaccinated.
“The great disparities across the state in vaccinations shows we have a lot to do in combating misinformation,” Minter said.
A relief for business
While some businesses across the state have continued requiring masks to be worn inside their establishments, many business owners are relieved they no longer have to hold that line.
Enforcement of the mask mandate fell largely to local leaders, public health department officials and business owners. It was a big ask that proved fractious for many, especially in rural parts of the state where people were less willing to voluntarily comply with the order.
Jeff Brown, owner of the Brick Oven in Williamsburg, wrestled with enforcing the mandate after doing so last year consistently lost him sales. After a steady month-over-month decline in revenue, he found himself wedged between a rock and a hard place in October: continue to enforce the order, which he knew was necessary to slow the spread of the disease, or potentially lose his business. In the fall, “when we were struggling real bad,” Brown conceded and made mask wearing optional for his customers.
“Even when we was leaving it up to the guests, you still have that in the back of your head that you’re technically supposed to be asking them to wear masks,” he said Thursday. “It puts pressure on the back end [when] we were trying to focus on day-to-day business.”
The official end of the mandate is a “big weight off the shoulders,” Brown said. “On top of the other stress, to have that part eliminated is a huge relief.”