Mask battle lines being drawn as Kentucky special session looms

Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, August 31, 2021

With Kentucky Republicans suddenly in charge of deciding how the state will respond to the surging COVID-19 pandemic, a prominent lawmaker is hinting at one policy direction: decisions about mask mandates are best left to local officials.

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens mentioned that approach as GOP lawmakers consider possible actions to be considered in an anticipated special legislative session. It also puts them in direct conflict with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who holds sole authority for calling such a session. Beshear said Monday he wants to see a “general consensus” on the path forward before making that call. On masking policy that could prove elusive.

“Universal masking in our schools is a must or we will get even worse from here,” Beshear said on social media Tuesday, while also urging people to mask up when indoors and away from home.

For more than a year, the governor unilaterally set virus policies in Kentucky. But the state Supreme Court recently shifted those decisions to the legislature. The court cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus-related restrictions.

If they are reconvened, lawmakers will be prepared to review the governor’s emergency actions to decide which ones to extend, alter or discontinue, House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade said Monday evening on the Kentucky Educational Television network.

As for mask-wearing policies, Givens predicted the GOP-dominated legislature would opt for local decision-making over a blanket statewide approach.

“I don’t think you’re going to see the General Assembly excited about mandating for or against lots of things,” Givens said on KET. “You’re going to see us drive it to local control.”

That includes lawmakers not stepping in to ban local mask mandates. On that subject, Givens said: “I have no sense that we’re going to go that far.”

The two Republican leaders said a broad range of coronavirus-related policies are under consideration as legislators await being called back to the statehouse.

The Democratic governor said Monday the session needs to happen soon in part to maintain the state of emergency he declared at the outset of the pandemic. And there are pressing issues stemming from the growing wave of school closures due to virus outbreaks, he said.

Talk of a special session comes as Kentucky suffers its worst stretch of virus cases and hospitalizations, driven by the fast-spreading delta variant. On Tuesday, the state reported 4,548 new COVID-19 cases — its 10th-highest daily total — and 23 more virus-related deaths.

Republicans scheduled several committee meetings this week in preparation for a special session.

“We’re getting the feedback that we need to gather … in order to be able to go in and have that session,” Meade said on “Kentucky Tonight,” a public affairs show on KET.

The Republican leaders said there are plenty of pandemic-related issues on which GOP lawmakers can agree with the governor. The biggest divide appears to be over masks.

Beshear supports universal mask-wearing in schools to try to slow the virus’s spread and keep schools open. Last week, the governor said escalating virus cases and hospitalizations would have spurred him to order a statewide mask mandate indoors if he still had such authority.

As lawmakers formulate their policies, Givens said: “The difference is we don’t have someone standing behind a podium and saying ‘I now order this.’ That’s a big difference. A lot more voices in the room, a lot more input in the conversation and a lot more ideas.”

Beshear said Monday he’s “realistic” as he negotiates with GOP legislative leaders, given the new dynamics arising from the court ruling. While maintaining that universal masking in schools is the “one right answer” to combat the spread of COVID-19, he floated another possible approach.

“If they won’t do universal masking but they say we will establish a metric by which if you hit a certain point you have to — and if you’re under that you still can — that’s the best we can get, I’ll take it,” the governor said.

Beshear said he’d push for “all the tools that I can” to fight the pandemic, but stressed he won’t hold off calling a special session if he doesn’t get everything he requested.

Rep. Joni Jenkins, the top-ranking House Democrat, said lawmakers should be willing to make decisions that “may not be politically popular with folks, such as masking for schoolchildren.”

“We have to show courage and do the right thing for Kentuckians,” she said during the KET program. “We are in a terrible spot right now in Kentucky.”