(AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday he planned to meet with House and Senate leaders about growing calls to allow schools to require face masks as the state reported 23 more deaths from COVID-19.
The governor says he plans to discuss the issue today with the GOP leaders of the state House and Senate, following calls from Democratic lawmakers and others to lift a state law banning mask mandates by state and local governments.
The Little Rock School Board on Monday night passed a resolution urging a change in the law so districts could decide whether to require students and employees wear masks.
“I think from a conservative standpoint you certainly could make make the point that local school districts ought to be able to make their own decisions as to what is the best health of their students,” Hutchinson told a town hall forum on vaccinations in Mountain Home.
Arkansas’ virus cases have been surging in recent weeks, fueled by the delta variant and the state’s low vaccination rate. The state’s deaths rose to 6,077. The number of people hospitalized rose by 61 to 980.
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson tweeted that the hospital had 66 COVID-19 patients, surpassing the record it reached in January when it had 63.
The state’s virus cases increased by 621 to 375,971.
The rolling average number of daily new cases in the state has increased by 161% over the past two weeks, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Only 36% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hutchinson, who has been touring the state encouraging people to get the shots, received an at-times hostile reception during his latest town hall Monday. At one point, state epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha was shouted at when she said there’s no evidence the vaccine causes infertility.
“I think it’s important for people to have factual, accurate information,” she said.
Hutchinson continued urging people to talk with their doctors or other health professionals about the vaccine.
Hutchinson in April signed the legislation banning mask mandates by local or state governments, a month after he lifted Arkansas’ statewide mask requirement.
Senate President Jimmy Hickey said he thinks there’s openness among lawmakers to revisiting the issue for schools, but said there’s uncertainty of how to do it and whether there are enough votes to enact such a change quickly.
“I’ve heard a lot of interest in probably allowing the local schools just that option,” Hickey said.
Hickey said one possibility is issue being addressed through the governor’s emergency powers under a new state law that expanded the Legislature’s say over disaster declarations and directives. Hutchinson allowed the state’s emergency declaration because of the pandemic to expire at the end of May.
Shepherd said he’s still discussing the topic with colleagues, but noted that the ban on mask mandates passed by a large margin.
“I think it still remains to be seen as to whether there’s been a significant change where the membership of the House is on this point,” Shepherd said.