By Steve Bittenbender
(The Center Square) – Masks are coming back on in all Kentucky schools, at least for the time being, after Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order Tuesday afternoon. But the discourse following the Democratic governor’s decision was decidedly unmasked.
In speaking to reporters late Tuesday afternoon, the governor said the state’s COVID-19 metrics are nearing exponential growth. According to state data, the state’s positivity rate exceeded 11%, and the 2,500 new cases in a day were the most since January.
The number of people hospitalized due to the virus has risen by 43% in a week to 1,251. The number of intensive care patients is now 339, up nearly a third from a week ago.
“At this rate, in two weeks, we will blow past our previous peaks,” said Kentucky Department for Public Health Commission Dr. Steven Stack.
Two weeks ago, Beshear and state Education Commissioner Jason Glass strongly encouraged the state’s school systems to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation and require masks for everyone inside school buildings regardless of vaccination status.
However, only about 50 of the more than 170 school systems took that action. And Beshear noted school leaders were already reporting numerous cases of kids testing positive and others quarantining in the first few days of classes for some districts.
One of the primary concerns regarding schools is children under age 12 cannot receive any vaccine but are still susceptible to catching the virus. In addition, state leaders also have concerns about the highly communicable delta variant among the unvaccinated. State data shows just 54% of the population has received one vaccine dose.
Those factors, as well as a spike nationally in the number of children testing positive, led him to sign the order, which requires masks for everyone ages 2 and older when inside public and private schools and daycares.
“We cannot keep our kids in school if we are unwilling to put on a mask,” he said.
That order, though, received strong criticism from lawmakers in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers.
Earlier this year, GOP legislators passed and imposed over the governor’s vetoes several laws curbing Beshear’s emergency powers.
Beshear issued a statewide mask mandate Sept. 4, 2020, which has since ended. Senate Bill 1, one of the laws passed this year, precludes a governor from issuing a new state of emergency based on the same or similar circumstances or giving new orders without legislative authorization.
Lawmakers say the state of emergency in Kentucky ended 30 days after lawmakers rejected the veto on SB 1 on Feb. 2. Some orders ended 90 days based on a resolution lawmakers passed.
Beshear has challenged those laws, and the Kentucky Supreme Court has heard arguments on the case. Justices are expected to issue their ruling in the weeks ahead.
House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, said in a statement Wednesday morning the court’s “unwillingness to act” has created uncertainty regarding the laws. A spokesperson for the speaker noted to The Center Square Beshear’s challenge was filed more than six months ago.
Osborne also criticized Beshear for his actions as well.
“In the meantime, local school districts across the state have carefully considered mandatory face coverings and made decisions regarding their own policies,” Osborne said. “The Governor may not agree with their choices, but he must respect their authority. Instead, at the eleventh hour, he chose to politicize this issue and flout their decisions by issuing an executive order with extremely questionable legal standing.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a challenge to Beshear’s order before the Supreme Court and argued the governor is defying a lower court’s injunction that keeps him from issuing new orders. He said the state government’s legitimacy is contingent on Beshear respecting the other branches of government.
In the filing, Cameron said if Beshear wants the power to issue a new mask mandate, “he needs to call a special session (of the General Assembly) and make his case to lawmakers.”
Jimmy Dyehouse, superintendent of Science Hill Independent School District in south central Kentucky, reportedly sent a voice mail to parents on Tuesday in which he called Beshear a “liberal lunatic” for issuing the order. A recording of the voicemail was posted on Twitter.
Science Hill schools started the school year Wednesday and planned to make masks optional.
State Rep. Ryan Dotson, R-Winchester, posted on his Facebook page he would seek to impeach the governor over the order, citing the laws the legislature passed.
“We must STOP this and quit allowing Kentuckians to be held hostage in our schools, in our hospitals, in small businesses and even in our government facilities,” said Dotson, who noted previous orders the governor has made recently regarding state buildings and state health facilities.
The order also led to some profane exchanges on social media between elected officials.
State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, tweeted if anyone spoke during Beshear’s press conference about “the psychological and educational harm to students wearing masks all day.” That prompted a reply of “F- – k you” from Chris Kolb, a member of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education Member Chris Kolb.
The JCPS Board voted to make masks mandatory July 27 to start the year in the state’s largest school system.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, tweeted Beshear’s “one size fits all” approach undermines local decision-making by authorities listening to parents.
Democratic Louisville Metro Council Member Jecorey Arthur responded with a map of Kentucky showing 108 of the state’s 120 counties with more than 25 daily cases per 100,000 residents, which the state considers its most serious situation. “STFU, Senator,” Arthur said.
Beshear had several health officials, education leaders and the business community speak in support of his decision.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce endorsed the order because it believes students need to be in school. Chamber leaders also have concerns about business productivity if parents have to attend to students forced to stay home because they are sick or in quarantine.
“I implore you, this thing is going the wrong way. Please get a vaccine,” Chamber Chairman Winston Griffin said at Tuesday’s press conference.