LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – An Arkansas judge on Friday temporarily prevented the state from enforcing its mask ban after lawmakers left the ban despite rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Pulaski County’s District Judge Tim Fox issued an injunction against the law Governor Asa Hutchinson signed in April banning the mask requirement by government agencies. The ban has been challenged by two lawsuits, including one from a district where more than 800 employees and students are being quarantined because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Fox decided against the measure on a number of grounds, including the argument that it discriminated between public and private schools. Fox released the rule hours after lawmakers adjourned a special session that Hutchinson called to consider lifting the ban on some schools.
Hutchinson had said the change was needed to protect children under 12 who cannot get vaccinated as virus cases and state hospital stays skyrocket.
A house committee on Thursday rejected two measures that would have enabled some school districts to waive mask requirements.
There have been increasing calls for the ban to be lifted before school opens nationwide by the end of this month.
“I think we will really regret not taking action,” said Democratic Senator Keith Ingram, the chamber’s minority leader. “I just hope the consequences for children, staff or teachers in this state are not fatal. “
Pediatricians and health officials have said masks are needed in schools to protect children as the Delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate fuel the state’s rising cases. The state reported the largest one-day increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions since the pandemic began on Monday, and the Department of Health said Thursday that the state only had 36 ICU beds available.
However, Hutchinson faced fierce opposition from fellow Republicans who had been inundated with calls and messages from opponents of masks in schools.
Opponents of the lifting of the ban who testified before lawmakers repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about the virus, including a woman falsely claiming that COVID-19 does not exist.
“You’re trying to talk to someone about it, but there is so much misinformation out there that you have to try to dispel that and then they go to another and do that and you have to do that all the way down to hold them from getting upset about you before you can ever speak to them about it, “said Republican Senate President Jimmy Hickey.
Hutchinson said this week he regretted signing the mask mandate ban, telling reporters that “in hindsight, I wish it hadn’t become law.” he vetoed the measure.
The Republican sponsor of the mandate ban said it believes the state needs to focus on other ways to tackle school outbreaks, such as vacations for teachers who need to be quarantined.
“What I don’t want is that false sense of security that masks seem to convey because it’s a simple political tool,” said Republican Senator Trent Garner. “Let’s find the real solutions if this happens in our schools and I think we are utterly inadequate at that.”
The House and Senate on Friday finally approved the only other item on the session’s agenda, a law designed to prevent the state from resuming additional unemployment insurance payments for 69,000 people in the state.
A state judge last week ordered Arkansas to resume payment and ruled that Hutchinson did not appear to have authority to suspend payments himself. Hutchinson was among more than two dozen GOP governors who ended their states’ participation in federally funded payments, which were due to run through early September.
This story has been corrected to show that the verdict was passed on Friday
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