The city of Little Rock is reinstating a mask mandate in public places, defying a state law enacted last week that prohibits such mandates. The announcement Thursday by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. came the same day two Arkansas school districts filed a lawsuit against the state and Gov. Asa Hutchinson challenging the constitutionality of the new law.
During a press conference at City Hall, Scott said the action was recommended by Little Rock’s COVID-19 Task Force, which includes representatives from hospitals in the city.
“I know this is not a popular decision, but it’s the right thing to do,” Scott said. “It’s what’s best for the public safety and welfare of all Little Rock residents.”
He noted the worsening resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the state, with the Department of Health reporting 2,777 new cases on Thursday, along with 17 additional deaths. With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of active cases in the state rose by 902 for a total of 21,461.
The mayor was asked if he was worried about legal repercussions from the state because of Act 1002, which passed during this year's legislative session and bans state and local governments, including school districts, from imposing mask mandates.
“We have no concern at all. We were very conscious in working with our city attorney. We believe that our power cannot be taken when it comes to protecting the residents,” Scott said.
He said the city had not consulted with the office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, which would enforce the state law.
The mask mandate takes effect Friday and would only apply to people inside buildings owned or operated by the city. Scott is encouraging private businesses to also require masks. The mask mandate will be in effect while the city is in a state of emergency, which is set to expire at the end of the month, though he said it could be continued.
Meanwhile, the state law is facing a direct challenge from the Little Rock School District and the Marion School District, where Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter said Wednesday that more than 750 students and staff were in quarantine because of an outbreak.
The districts filed the lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, with Judge Tim Fox set to hold a hearing Friday to consider a request for a temporary restraining order to halt enforcement of the law while the case is being considered.
Fenter, who spoke to state lawmakers Wednesday during a special session of the legislature to consider amending the law to allow districts to make their own decisions about masks, predicts that without action, other school districts will encounter similar outbreaks. On Thursday, legislators voted against two bills that would have allowed school boards to require masks in certain circumstances.
The lawsuit says, “No rational reason exists for denying public school students, teachers and staff, and the school boards which are obligated to keep them safe, the ability to ensure that all who work and learn in our public schools are as safe as possible.”
The Marion School District in east Arkansas started its new academic year on July 26 and almost immediately had an outbreak. The Little Rock School District will begin classes on Aug. 16, along with most others in the state.
The governor had called lawmakers to the Capitol urging them to approve the change for schools, saying he was especially concerned about children under the age of 12 for whom vaccines have not yet been approved. The state has seen a spike in cases involving children who are more susceptible to the delta variant, which impacts younger, healthier people than last year’s virus and makes them sick much more rapidly.
The lawsuit by the districts is the second to be filed challenging the mask mandate ban. On Tuesday, attorney Tom Mars filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on behalf of two parents. The Arkansas Attorney General’s office, which will defend the state in the lawsuits, has not commented on the pending litigation.