On the day before the Arkansas General Assembly begins a special session to consider modifying a state law prohibiting mask mandates, Gov. Asa Hutchinson acknowledged there might not be legislative support for the change.
The Republican wants lawmakers to modify Act 1002, which took effect last month and prohibits any state or local government entity – including schools – from mandating masks. Hutchinson pointed to a rising number of cases involving kids under the age of 12, who are too young to be vaccinated, as the reason to allow local school districts to issue mask mandates for students and staff if they choose.
On Tuesday, the governor signed the formal order bringing lawmakers together for the three-day session. However, during a press conference later in the day, Hutchinson said he realizes his plea might not get enough lawmakers to change their position.
"We may or may not get there, but I want to give the legislature a chance to help protect those 12 and under and give the school districts that flexibility," Hutchinson said. "That’s the way I see it and the only option I have to carry that out is to ask the legislature to come and review that and to amend the law."
Asked if he regretted signing the law, Hutchinson said in hindsight he did, but at that time the state was seeing a declining number of cases, a statewide mask mandate had been lifted, and he knew there were enough votes in the legislature to override a veto.
Because of the learning loss sustained by students when schools were closed for much of the previous school year, Hutchinson has maintained that it’s vital for in-class instruction to take place this year. He said a change in the law would allow local control.
"Local school districts are all different across the state and they have different opinions on this and they reflect different wishes of parents and their constituents," Hutchinson said. "The local school districts should make the call and they should have more options to make sure their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education."
According to Hutchinson, Arkansas is continuing to see a spike in cases. There were 16 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, along with 2,343 new cases of people testing positive for the virus.
Hutchinson said one piece of good news in the daily report from the Department of Health was that more than 30,000 vaccinations were administered on Monday. He also said 14 counties have reached his goal of having at least 50% percent of their eligible residents vaccinated.
Hospitals continue struggling with an increasing number of people becoming sick. The state reported 30 additional hospitalizations Tuesday, which follows the biggest one-day spike on Monday, with 81 additional people being hospitalized with the virus.
Also during the special session, lawmakers will consider a clarification to action taken by the governor which ended state residents being able to receive enhanced federal unemployment benefits. A judge recently ruled the legislature, not the governor, would have to make that decision.
Hutchinson said ending the state’s participation in the federal program has proven to be effective at a time when many companies are struggling with a shortage of employees.
"That was paying them $300 a week to stay out of the workforce. This made no sense and we ended it. Since that time two things have happened: the number of Arkansans registering for work increased by 28% and nearly 160,000 Arkansas jobs have been filled," Hutchinson said.
The session is scheduled to start Wednesday at 10 a.m.