Kentucky lawmakers kill statewide school mask mandate

Published 9:50 pm Thursday, September 9, 2021

Kentucky lawmakers, many not wearing masks, voted Thursday to scrap a statewide mask mandate in public schools and shifted masking decisions to local school boards, acting in a special session as the state’s worst COVID-19 surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

The GOP-dominated legislature set education policies in response to disruptions caused by the virus, which has forced dozens of districts to close classrooms. The masking provisions sparked emotional debate on the third day of the special session called by the Democratic governor to address the pandemic.

The bill goes to Gov. Andy Beshear, who previously issued statewide mask mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19 and recently said he thought another mask order was needed to confront the current surge. Republicans have enough votes to override any Beshear veto.

The special session marked a power shift in the state’s response to the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Beshear acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, saying his actions saved lives. Republicans criticized him for what they branded as overly broad and stringent restrictions.

The special session comes as Kentucky’s hospitals struggle with a record influx of virus cases. Beshear warned Thursday that only 90 adult intensive care beds were available statewide — a pandemic low. He noted nearly two-thirds of Kentucky’s hospitals face critical staffing shortages, and more than 300 Kentucky National Guard members will be headed to 21 hospitals to assist overworked health care workers.

“Our hospital situation has never been more dire in my lifetime than it is right now,” Beshear said.

Working into the night, Republican lawmakers asserted their newfound dominance in shaping Kentucky’s pandemic policies — the result of a state Supreme Court ruling last month. The court cleared the way for laws to take effect limiting the governor’s emergency powers to impose virus restrictions. The justices said a lower court wrongly blocked the GOP-backed measures. The governor responded by calling the legislature into session.