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Arkansas special session gets underway

Several legislators have introduced bills to amend ban on mask mandates
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks remotely to legislators on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in Little...
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks remotely to legislators Nov. 10, 2020, in Little Rock, Ark.(Andrew Demillo | AP)
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 5:14 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 10:45 PM CDT
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(KSLA) — The Arkansas Legislature’s special session kicked off Wednesday, Aug. 4.

As the state’s COVID-19 cases surge, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking lawmakers to focus on the ban on mask mandates in Arkansas.

On Wednesday, the Arkansas Department of Health reported there were only 25 ICU beds available statewide. That, in part, is because there are 469 COVID-19 patients in ICUs throughout Arkansas, including 260 on ventilators.

Hutchinson signed Act 1002 into law last legislative session. It prohibits mask mandates by the state or any other public entity.

On Tuesday, however, the governor expressed regret over signing that legislation. “I signed it for those reasons that our cases were at a low point; everything has changed now.

“In hindsight, I wish that had not become law,” Hutchinson continued. “But it is the law. And the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation.”

Several legislators have introduced bills to amend the new law.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee was presented House Bill 1003. It would amend state law to allow school districts to require masks where there are kids age 12 or younger and if the district has a COVID outbreak.

“Why would we not want to give that school board the ability to add one more tool to help protect those kids and keep them free of infection, to keep them in the school and to keep them learning.” said Rep. Julie Mayberry, who sponsored the bill.

Marion County, Ark., schools Superintendent Glen Fenter joined Mayberry. His school district is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak after students went back to class eight days ago.

“Our cumulative quarantine number is 730 as of yesterday,” he said. “We have had 34 positive cases within the students and nine cases within our staff. I was told just a few minutes ago that the numbers continue to rise rapidly.“

The cases aren’t isolated to one school, Fenter added, so closing one school won’t stop it. He said there have been conversations about closing the entire school district.

Several spoke for and against the bill in a committee meeting.

After more than three hours of discussion and public input, it was decided the Arkansas House of Representatives will revisit House Bill 1003, giving Mayberry a chance to make changes.

Another bill introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 2, which would allow school boards to establish a quarantine or mask mandate policy. Sens. Alan Clark, Charles Beckham, Bart Hester and Missy Irvin are sponsors of the bill, which has been sent to the Senate Education Committee.

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