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Arkansas Governor Calls For Special Session On Mask Mandates, Reinstates Health Emergency

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Governor's Office
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Arkansas’ governor is calling for a special legislative session to modify a new state law that bans state entities, including public schools, from implementing mask mandates because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday his intent to call a session to modify a recently-passed law so school boards would have the power to implement mask mandates, if they choose to do so. The announcement came the same day the state reported over 2,800 new cases.

The law, which went into effect Wednesday, bans any state agency, political subdivision of the state, as well as state and local officials from mandating the wearing of facemasks.

Hutchinson said during a press conference the possible modification of the law is about protecting Arkansans 12 and under, who are unable to get vaccinated.

"This is not… a debate about mask mandates for those that can make their own decisions that 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 the children that they have the responsibility to protect," Hutchinson said.

The governor's call for a special session comes one week after Democratic state lawmakers issued a letter to Hutchinson and legislative leaders asking for a session to lift the statewide ban on mask mandates.

Hutchinson said he has talked with Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, about the special session.

"They have expressed to me that it’s going to be a heavy lift to get passage of this in the legislature, but I have confidence that as the legislature looks at this, they will understand, one, that it’s a conservative principal to utilize local decision making and not everything fits statewide," Hutchinson said. "Then secondly, that this is necessary really to protect those most vulnerable young people 12 and under."

According to Hutchinson, Arkansas Children’s Hospital currently has 24 adolescents being treated for COVID-19. Two are on a ventilator, he said, while five are in the intensive care unit. Hutchinson noted that none had been vaccinated, despite 12 of the 24 being old enought to have received a shot.

"That makes the point that they need to be protected first by the decisions of their parents and then secondly by a school board if they decide to take action in that regard," Hutchinson said.

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY AGAIN IN EFFECT

Hutchinson also reinstated a public health emergency for the state, though the emergency will now need to be reviewed by the legislature due to a law passed during this year's legislative session that gave lawmakers more power over state-declared emergencies.

"We are in a public health emergency. Anytime you’re having staffing shortages in the hospital. Whenever, today, we have I believe it is four COVID patients that are waiting in ambulances to be able to find a hospital to go to, that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis," Hutchinson said.

The governor gave two reasons for the re-implementation of the emergency declaration: so the state can seek necessary staffing assistance in healthcare facilities through an interstate compact and so the state can ease the licensure of healthcare professionals for retired workers to reenter the workforce or to speed entry into healthcare services for others.

"We’re looking at a number of different specific actions," Hutchinson said. "I’m directing our Department of Health to take the steps necessary to ease that licensure even more so that we can increase our staffing in the hospitals and for those that are in need."

Hutchinson said he has also reached out to the White House for federal assistance to come to the state and evaluate the situation, including bed capacity.

STATE SEES ALMOST 2,900 NEW CASES

Arkansas added 2,843 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, which brings the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases to 382,569. The total number of active cases grew by 1,431 to 17,232.

"I would emphasis that that number, 2,843, is one of the largest days that we’ve seen since the pandemic started," Hutchinson said.

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Thursday's COVID-19 report from the Arkansas Department of Health.

Eleven more Arkansans have died from COVID-19, with the death toll now 6,110. Hospitalizations decreased by nine, the first time that number has decreased in days. The total number of hospitalizations was 1,055, with the number of those on a ventilator increasing by 10 to 219.

Pulaski County had the highest number of new cases with 381 people testing positive for the virus. Washington County added 209 cases, while Benton County added 193.

Over 10,000 Arkansans received a COVID-19 vaccination in the previous 24 hours. The number of fully immunized Arkansans is now over 1,050,000.

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