The law, a “prohibition on mandatory use of face mask, face shield, or other face covering,” went into effect on April 28. It states:
“A state agency or entity, a political subdivision of the state, or a state or local official shall not mandate an individual in this state to use a face mask, face shield, or other face covering. (c) The use of a face mask, face shield, or other face covering shall not be a condition for entry, education, or services. (d) If a state agency or entity, a political subdivision of the state, or a state or local official recommends that an individual in this state use a face mask, face shield, or other face covering, a state agency or entity, a political subdivision of the state, or a state or local official shall provide notice that the recommendation is not mandatory.”
Hutchinson, who all of a sudden seems to be voicing concern for schoolchildren under the age of 12 who can’t be vaccinated, called a special session that commenced on Wednesday to reconsider the legislation. “The local school districts should make the call, and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education,” he said before the session.
Dr. Jose Romero, the state’s health secretary, said during the same news conference Hutchinson spoke at that almost 19% of COVID-19 cases in the state are among those who are under 18 years old, and more than half of that group is less than 12 years old. “Between April and July of this year there’s been a 517% increase in the number of cases in people under 18 with a nearly 690% increase in cases for children 12 and under,” Romero said. “There’s been an increase of nearly 270% in hospitalization among individuals less than 18 years of age.”
The uptick in COVID-19 cases in Arkansas is in line with what’s been reported throughout the South, with Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri reporting the highest daily COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation over the past week, Washington Post writer Katie Shepherd reported. In Missouri, someone who attended a St. Louis County Council meeting reversing a countywide mask mandate tested positive for COVID-19.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order preventing schools from requiring students to wear masks, and two days later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing the state broke records with 21,683 new cases of the virus in one day.
“The federal government has no right to tell parents that in order for their kids to attend school in person, they must be forced to wear a mask all day, every day,” DeSantis said in a news release. “Many Florida schoolchildren have suffered under forced masking policies, and it is prudent to protect the ability of parents to make decisions regarding the wearing of masks by their children.” The governor attributed the spike in cases to “a seasonal increase—more Floridians are indoors because of the hot weather with air conditioning circulating the virus,” according to the Associated Press.
At the very least, Hutchinson is acknowledging the reality of this virus and pushing to give school boards the discretion to implement mask requirements—a considerably low bar many Republicans still struggle to meet. “I understand that some legislators are reluctant to allow school boards this freedom, even in this limited way,” the Arkansas governor said in a statement. “But the exceptions for which I am asking are true to the conservative principle that puts control in the hands of local government.”