As Virus Cases Spike in Arkansas, the Governor Backtracks on Masks
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In March, with the number of new coronavirus cases in Arkansas plummeting, Gov. Asa Hutchinson let the statewide mask mandate expire that some of his fellow Republicans had opposed all along.
Soon after, Mr Hutchinson took it a step further by signing a law that barred most government entities in the state from instituting future mask warrants.
The sponsor of the bill, State Senator Trent Garner, later write on Twitter that it was “one of the most important laws we have ever passed.”
“The left wants more control over YOU and over the lives of your children,” he continued. “Masking is now about power, not public safety.”
Mr. Hutchinson, a relatively moderate Republican, didn’t think much of it at the time. “Our cases were at a very low point,” he recalled at a press conference on Tuesday. However, he added, “Looking back, I wish it hadn’t become law.”
In recent days, as coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant have skyrocketed in Arkansas, Mr Hutchinson has backed down and is now urging state lawmakers to overturn part of the law so that school districts can adopt mask mandates before students return to their classrooms. en masse.
In doing so, he infuriated even the more conservative members of his base, pointing to a larger dilemma facing Republican governors in the South, where new coronavirus infections are on the rise again, but die-hard conservatives remain adamant about it. fact that many regulations seeking to contain the spread of the virus are a threat to personal freedom.
In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster issued an executive order banning school mask warrants. In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves has said he will not issue a mask warrant for schools. On Tuesday in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis also renewed his vow not to impose a mask mandate or trade restrictions, despite a worrying workload. “We are not closing,” he told a press conference. “We are going to open schools. We protect the work of every Floridian in this state.
In Arkansas, the drama at government headquarters unfolded when Tyson Foods, the meat processing giant and one of Arkansas’ signature employers, said on Tuesday it would demand vaccines for its American workers. . About half of Tyson’s U.S. employees are still unvaccinated, and the company is offering payments of $ 200 to frontline workers who can show proof of vaccination.
Mr Hutchinson, a limited-term second-term governor who many say has his eye on a senior post, has called a special session of the Republican-controlled legislature that is expected to meet on Wednesday to consider his proposal to allow the school districts to define their own mask mandates.
But on Tuesday, he said his chances of passing were low. “It’s clear to me that there are a lot of people who just don’t want this on their knees,” he said. “It’s clear to me that some school principals don’t want it either.
“We may or may not get there,” he added.
The stakes in Arkansas are high. About 58% of adults in Arkansas have received at least one shot of the vaccine, the 11th lowest rate in the country, while the rate of new cases in the past seven days is 63 per 100,000 population, the third highest in the United States, behind Louisiana and Florida, according to New York Times data. Three other southern states – Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina – are also in the top 10 new cases per capita.
Arkansas officials reported on Monday that 81 patients infected with the coronavirus had been newly hospitalized, the largest one-day increase in the pandemic, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. At his Tuesday press conference, Mr Hutchinson reported a sharp increase in the number of vaccines given in the past 24 hours. He also reported that 30 more people had been hospitalized, putting increasing pressure on intensive care units and ventilators. The unvaccinated have made up a large majority of sick and dead in recent months.
José R. Romero, the Secretary of State for Health, spoke of the “sobering” reality for children and for schools: as of August 1, he said, nearly 19% of cases State assets concerned children under the age of 18. More than half of them, he said, were children under 12 and therefore ineligible for vaccines.
“We have a vulnerable group that is not eligible for the vaccine,” Hutchinson said. His proposal, he said, “would give local school districts the ability to add protection to children under the age of 12.”
Public health experts support the use of masks in certain settings to protect people from the virus and slow the pandemic.
But grassroots opposition was evident Monday in the beautiful limestone building of the Arkansas State Capitol, where dozens of conservatives gathered on the steps to protest the proposed change amidst seas. American flags, homemade anti-mask signs and Trump paraphernalia.
“Masks are stupid! A 10-year-old girl named Samantha told the jubilant crowd. In an interview after the rally, Courtney Roldan, the mother of a third-grader at Cabot, said the masks “don’t protect our children from anything.”
Another participant, Brian Hinson, an unvaccinated retiree from central Arkansas, said the vaccination effort Mr Hutchinson championed was “Nazi shit”.
Around the time Arkansas’ law banning mask warrants was passed, some health experts had warned it could tie the hands of local governments in the event of a new wave of the pandemic. In an interview this week, State Senator Keith Ingram, the minority leader, said it was a mistake for the governor to sign it. But he and other Democrats have said that prior to that moment, Mr Hutchinson had competently ruled the state during the first wave of the pandemic.
Mr Ingram suspected that a political calculation had underpinned the governor’s decision to sign the bill. Mr. Hutchinson, 70, previously served as a federal prosecutor, congressman and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and was recently elected president of the National Governors Association. He appears to be trying to stay in good standing with the right-wing Republican base while becoming a critic of former President Donald J. Trump.
“I think he was trying to distinguish between doing what he thought was right and doing what he had to do, politically, with a boring legislature,” Mr. Ingram said.
Mr Hutchinson has also presented himself as a leader guided by science and common sense during the pandemic, and in recent weeks he has organized events across the state in an effort to convince vaccine skeptics to do so. vaccinate. The reaction has often been hostile.
At a town hall-style meeting in Siloam Springs, they yelled at him “liar.” In another, at Mountain Home, protesters hoisted signs saying “My body, my choice” and “Say no to compulsory injections”, even though Mr Hutchinson signed a law in the spring banning vaccination warrants.
Some school officials are hoping Mr Hutchinson will somehow win a Legislature victory this week. Glen Fenter is the Superintendent of the Marion School District, which began classes July 26. He said seven students and three staff were found to have Covid-19 last week, forcing 168 people to self-quarantine. On Monday, he said, another 18 people tested positive.
“If we just wore masks like we did in the first wave of the pandemic, all of that could be contained as we ramp up our vaccination rate,” Dr Fenter said.
Meanwhile, two parents of schoolchildren in the Little Rock area filed a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of the ban on mask warrants, calling it “an irrational act of legislative madness that threatens children.” of public schools from kindergarten to grade 12 irreparable harm ”.
Mike Poore, the Little Rock School District superintendent, said Monday officials could file a separate complaint if the law is not changed.
“Hey, I like what Governor Hutchinson tried to do,” Mr. Poore said. But if he does not succeed in changing the law, Mr Poore said, the courts may be the only way “to ensure that we are doing all we can to support and protect our staff and our students.”
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