Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced that he will be calling the state legislature into a special session to consider allowing school boards to require students and staff to wear masks in schools.
Hutchinson in April signed into law legislation that prohibits state and local government entities, including public school districts, from requiring or mandating any kind of face covering. The Republican governor said Thursday, however, that he is planning to call a special session—most likely next week—for the purpose of changing that law.
“This is not a debate about mask mandates for those that can make their own decisions and have the means to get vaccinated,” Hutchinson said during a press conference at the state Capitol. “This is a discussion about the school environment where schools can make decisions about the public health for their school environment and the children they have [the] responsibility to protect.”
The announcement came as Hutchinson reinstated Arkansas’s public health emergency that ended just two months ago, citing an increase in cases of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus infections. He said he is particularly concerned that children under age 12 are ineligible to be vaccinated against the virus.
Hutchinson noted that Arkansas Children’s Hospital currently has 24 patients admitted with the CCP virus. According to the latest report from the hospital in Little Rock, five of the 24 patients are in intensive care and two are on ventilators. None of the hospitalized patients have been fully vaccinated.
Hutchinson also promised that restrictions on businesses will not be discussed in the special session.
“Businesses are wide open in Arkansas,” he said. “We’re going to be doing business in Arkansas. We have to live with the threat of the virus, the increase in vaccinations, we have to continue to do business, provide for our families, and there’s not going to be those kind[s] of restrictions here in the state,”
The move was welcomed by the Democratic minority of Arkansas’s state legislature. State Sens. Joyce Elliot, Linda Chesterfield, and Clarke Tucker, all Democrats, argued in a letter to Hutchinson and other Republican leaders that the ban on the mask mandate should be revised since the current public health situation has changed so much from what it was in April when CCP virus infections were on the decline.
“There was reason to assume it was safe to return to a sense of normality, so we did so,” the letter reads. “As with most things in the pandemic, however, nothing is certain, and since the legislature recessed in April, circumstances in our state have altered dramatically.”
The Republican majority, however, is likely to oppose the change. State Sen. Trent Garner, the Republican who wrote the legislation banning mask mandates, said he’s disappointed the governor seeks to amend it so quickly after it became law, reported ABC-affiliate KATV.
“It’s unfortunate that Governor Hutchinson is choosing big government mandates over the parents of Arkansas. What this law does is allow those parents to make a personal choice for themselves and their children in the best way to deal with COVID-19,” Garner said, adding that he received thousands of phone calls and emails from parents who don’t want mask mandates reimposed in schools.
“I’m not anti-vaccination, but I think you just made a clear point, people are deciding not to get that [the vaccine] and there’s a reason why,” he said. “They don’t trust the institution. They don’t trust the government that shut down their businesses. They don’t trust the government that forced their kids to go to school with a mask.”