Kentucky lawmakers reconvene to shape response to COVID-19

Published 4:54 am Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Republican lawmakers took initial steps Tuesday to block statewide mask mandates, showing their preference for local decision-making on the issue as they reconvened for a special session to assert their dominance in shaping Kentucky’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a daylong burst of action, a Senate committee advanced a measure to nullify the state school board’s requirement that anyone in a public K-12 school wear a mask. The bill would leave it up to local school boards to decide mask policies for their districts.

A House panel advanced another bill to prevent the governor from issuing any new statewide orders requiring mask wearing. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear previously used a mask mandate to combat the virus’s spread. He lifted it but has said he would have reinstituted a mask-wearing requirement to counter a recent COVID-19 surge if he still had the authority.

The session marks a dramatic power shift in coronavirus-related policymaking in the Bluegrass State. Since the pandemic hit Kentucky, Beshear mostly acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, but the state Supreme Court shifted those decisions to the legislature in a landmark ruling.

On the session’s opening day, lawmakers gave swift final approval to a measure extending the pandemic-related state of emergency until Jan. 15 — a move Beshear requested. The measure won overwhelming approval in the GOP-dominated House and Senate.

Dozens of anti-mask advocates gathered at the statehouse as many lawmakers chose not to wear masks as they assembled for the session.

Beshear called the legislature back to the Capitol to consider a range of virus-related issues. GOP lawmakers responded by unveiling several bills Tuesday that will guide Kentucky’s pandemic policies. It comes as Kentucky’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 7,900, and as the state’s hospitals treat rising numbers of coronavirus patients because of the fast-spreading delta variant.