LITTLE ROCK, Arche.
An Arkansas judge temporarily barred the state from enforcing its ban on mask warrants on Friday after lawmakers left the ban in place despite a growing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has issued a preliminary injunction against the law Governor Asa Hutchinson signed in April banning mask requirements by government entities. The ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one in a school district in eastern Arkansas where more than 900 staff and students are in quarantine due to a coronavirus outbreak.
Fox spoke against the measure on several grounds, including the argument that it discriminated between public and private schools.
The law “cannot be enforced in any form, mode or form” pending further legal action, Fox said.
Fox released the decision hours after lawmakers adjourned a special session Hutchinson called to consider revisiting the school ban. Hutchinson had said the change was necessary to protect children under 12 who cannot get vaccinated as virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket in the state.
Hutchinson faced strong opposition from his fellow Republicans, who had been inundated with calls and messages from opponents of masks in schools.
The governor, who said he regretted signing the ban, said he agreed with Fox’s decision but had no plans to reimpose the mask warrant across the board. of the state he had lifted in March. He also slammed lawmakers who opposed the action, saying many of them have taken a “relaxed, even cavalier attitude” towards the state’s COVID-19 crisis.
“What worries me is that many just listen to the loudest voices and don’t stand up with compassion, common sense and serious action,” he told reporters.
Hutchinson was named a defendant in the lawsuit with state and legislative leaders. He left open the option of separately asking the state Supreme Court to uphold Fox’s decision on appeal.
A House panel Thursday rejected two measures that would have allowed some school districts to impose mask requirements.
There had been growing calls to lift the ban before school started across the state later this month, and the mayor of Little Rock on Thursday issued a mask warrant for parks and communities. buildings in the city, despite the ban.
The Marion School District, which has joined with Little Rock Schools in challenging the ban, said on Friday that 949 staff and students had to self-quarantine since classes began last week due to a coronavirus epidemic. The district said 54 students and 11 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter has warned lawmakers that his district’s experience could be a harbinger of what other schools will face. He said on Friday he would consult lawyers and start discussing the possibility of a warrant with the local school board.
“This again gives us another opportunity to potentially protect our students,” he said.
Pediatricians and health officials have said masks in schools are needed to protect children, as the Delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate are fueling the state’s spiral of cases. The state on Monday reported its largest one-day increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and the Department of Health said on Friday that only 28 intensive care unit beds were available in the state.
Only 37% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated against the virus.
Arkansas ranks second in the country for new cases per capita, according to figures compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The state reported more than 3,000 new cases of the virus on Friday, bringing its total since the start of the pandemic to more than 400,000. It also reported 22 new deaths from COVID-19.
Opponents of the lifting of the ban who testified before the legislature have repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about the virus, including a woman who falsely suggested that COVID-19 does not exist.
“That’s what’s frustrating is that we don’t make decisions about data, data being respected,” said Democratic Representative Denise Garner, who co-sponsored one of the proposals to lift the ban. .
The Republican sponsor of the term ban said he believes the state should focus on other ways to tackle epidemics in schools, such as time off for teachers who must self-quarantine.
“What I don’t want is that false sense of security that masks seem to provide because it’s an easy political tool,” Republican Senator Trent Garner said. “Let’s find the real solutions when this happens in our schools, and I think we’re woefully inadequate about it. ”
The House and Senate on Friday gave final approval to the only other item on the session’s agenda, legislation aimed at preventing the state from resuming additional unemployment insurance payments to 69,000 people in the ‘State.
Last week, a state judge ordered Arkansas to resume the payment, ruling that Hutchinson did not appear to have the authority to cut the payments. Hutchinson was one of more than two dozen GOP governors who ended their states’ participation in federally-funded payments, which were due to run until early September.