As COVID Breaks Records in Arkansas, Its GOP Governor Regrets Ban on Mask Mandates

Asa Hutchinson is calling a special legislative session to roll it back.

Tom Williams/ZUMA

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As the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant shatters coronavirus case records in Arkansas, its Republican governor is scrambling to reverse a ban on local mask mandates he signed into law just months ago. But as Gov. Asa Hutchinson admitted in a press conference Monday, rolling it back will be difficult—and something he probably can’t do without broader support from his party’s lawmakers.

“In hindsight, I wish that had not become law,” Hutchinson told reporters. “But it is the law and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say it has an unconstitutional foundation.” The governor, who last week declared a public health emergency amid surging COVID cases, is now calling for a special legislative session to amend the ban. But Hutchinson’s admission of regret may not be enough to convince the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.

Resistance to vaccines has exacerbated the crisis, with Arkansas communities accounting for some of the country’s lowest vaccination rates. Last week, Hutchinson faced vaccine hesitancy firsthand when he was roundly booed on stage after challenging the lie that vaccines cause fertility issues.

While Hutchinson was just one of many GOP governors to enthusiastically embrace a ban on mask mandates earlier in the pandemic, he is the first to try to roll back such an order. His move stands in stark contrast to other Republican governors still doubling down on them, as in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, even as their states see cases explode. As I wrote earlier:

On Saturday, Florida recorded 21,683 new cases of COVID-19, breaking its one-day record for new cases. But even as the state swells with fresh infections, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis remains hellbent on his war against mask mandates. He even recently barred school districts from instituting mask mandates when classes reconvene in August. 

DeSantis is far from alone in his bitter fight against mask-wearing, a measure health officials say is critical in the fight to contain the highly contagious Delta variant. In Mississippi, where ICU beds are nearing capacity with a surge of unvaccinated individuals, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves blasted the CDC’s mask guidelines as “foolish” and claimed that it reeked of “political panic.”

“It has nothing, let me say that again: It has nothing to do with rational science,” Reeves said on Thursday. 

On Monday, President Biden directly called out Republican governors who are blocking schools and businesses in their states from instituting mask mandates, telling them to “get out of the way.” 

“Some governors aren’t willing to do the right things to make this happen,” Biden told reporters. “I say to these governors, please help. If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

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