Arkansas’ GOP governor wants to undo ban on mask mandates

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FILE – In this April 27, 2020 file photo, Gov. Asa Hutchinson takes off his Arkansas Razorbacks facemark as he arrives for the daily coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock. Hutchinson issued the order Thursday, July, 16, 2020, effective Monday, July 20, requiring people to wear masks in public throughout the state, which is dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases. The governor issued the order after weeks of resisting such a requirement. (Staton Breidenthal/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson says he wishes a bill banning state and local mask mandates hadn’t become law, months after he signed the bill. Now, he’s asking state leaders to reconsider the ban so local school districts have the flexibility to require masks when children return to the classroom. 

Hutchinson said he signed the bill in April because cases in his state were at a low point, and because he knew his veto would be overridden by the legislature anyhow. The governor reinstated the state’s public health emergency last week, and is calling a special session for the state legislature to change the mask mandate law so schools can impose mask requirements if they choose. According to Arkansas Secretary of Health Jose Romero, almost 19% of COVID-19 cases are currently among children under 18. 

“Yes, in hindsight, I wish that it 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,” Hutchinson said during a press conference Tuesday.

“Everything has changed now,” Hutchinson said. 

Cases in Arkansas have soared in recent weeks with the rise of the delta variant and a high proportion of the population still unvaccinated. Fewer than half of Arkansas residents have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Arkansas isn’t the only state that bans localities from imposing mask mandates. Vermont, South Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Utah have banned schools from imposing mask mandates. 

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, claimed the CDC’s recommendations are “not consistent with the science.” Current CDC guidance is that all unvaccinated people should wear masks in public spaces, including those under 12 who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The CDC comes in and says every single person in a school — students, teachers, staff have to be masked at all times. That is not consistent with the evidence. That is not data-driven,” DeSantis said during a press conference last week. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott also used an executive order last week to ban localities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates. 

“The new executive order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates. Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19. They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities,” Abbott said in a statement. 

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