Governor Calls Special Session on Mask Law, Declares Emergency

Governor Calls Special Session on Mask Law, Declares Emergency
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file) (Office of the Governor)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he will call a special legislative session, likely next week, to consider amending a law prohibiting mask mandates by state and local governments — a move that could allow public K-12 school districts to implement their own mask policies.

The Republican also declared a statewide public health emergency and said, per his request for assistance, the federal government would send its COVID-19 surge response team to Arkansas to "evaluate, strategize and maximize" its hospital capacity.

The announcements come as COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked in Arkansas, fueled by the delta variant of the virus and the state's low vaccinate rate. Arkansas reported more than 2,800 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, and about 40% of its population is vaccinated. The governor said "a great deal of progress" is being made toward a vaccination rate of 60%-70% but work must continue, and at an accelerated pace ahead of the start of the school year.

Hutchinson said the special session would be narrowly tailored to deal with the mask mandate ban as it pertains to K-12 schools.

"There will be no statewide mask mandate imposed by me, and the Legislature, of course, has made that clear as well," the governor said. "This is not a debate about mask mandates for those that can make their own decisions and have means to get vaccinated.

"This is a discussion about the school environment where schools can make decisions to add to the public health for their own school environment and for the children that they have a responsibility to protect."

The state, he said, will not impose any restrictions on businesses, as it did in the early days of the pandemic. 

"We are wide open in Arkansas. We're going to be doing business in Arkansas," he said.

The governor said he's been told that amending the law approved by the Republican-majority Legislature will be a "heavy lift." But he said he is confident that lawmakers will see the amendment as necessary to protect children.

The call for a special session comes two days after Hutchinson met with the GOP leaders of the state House and Senate about the mask mandate ban. Hutchinson had signed the ban into law in April but has faced growing calls from Democrats, health care professionals and some superintendents to change it.

Hutchinson said his emergency declaration allows Arkansas to seek health care staffing assistance from other states and eases licensure requirements for health care professionals that will be needed to fight COVID-19. The declaration, effective today, will expire in 60 days, but it must be reviewed by the Legislature.

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