Across the country, Republican leaders have signed into law measures functionally indistinguishable from deliberate efforts to aid the novel coronavirus. For example, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill into law in April that bans mask mandates across the state. Now that the Delta variant of the virus is once again ravaging Arkansas, Hutchinson has changed his tune to... my bad?
At a press conference on Tuesday, Hutchinson explained that “in hindsight, I wish that had not become law.” He then punted to the state legislature for a fix, adding another helpful suggestion that it remained possible courts could also clean up some of the mess by finding the law he signed unconstitutional: “But it is the law. So the only chance we have is to amend it or for the courts to say it has an unconstitutional foundation.”
“I signed it at the time because our cases were at a very low point,” Hutchinson added. “Everything has changed now.” The governor gave no indication that he understands how stupid it is to ban mask mandates forever just because one believes they aren’t necessary at the current moment. Hutchinson simply thinks he boned this one up because masks are needed right now.
Under the mandate, cities and schools cannot implement any restrictions that would deny entry to a person who has not received a vaccine or is not wearing a mask. Exceptions exist for health care facilities, facilities operated by the Department of Corrections or Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, and private businesses, many of which have rushed to re-implement their own requirements that staff and customers wear face coverings. Parts of Arkansas are among the least vaccinated places in the country with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting just 47.4% of the population has had at least one dose, and it is also one of the states worst hit by the Delta-fueled third wave of the pandemic.
According to the New York Times, reported cases in Arkansas have risen 69% in the last two weeks, with 1,943 new infections and 1,119 related hospitalizations on Aug. 3 alone.
Republicans, in keeping with the rich tradition pioneered by Donald Trump, have largely rallied around masks as a culture war issue and an affront against freedom imposed on the public by haughty liberals. Just last week, members of Congress marched to the Senate to protest an indoor mask mandate imposed in the House of Representatives. GOP politicians are under intense pressure from the party’s base, specifically, a vocal segment of likely primary voters who remain adamantly opposed to many of the restrictions health authorities and state and local officials have introduced to slow the spread of the virus, and they appear to be calculating that weariness over mask mandates is a winning political issue. They have successfully pushed similar anti-mask mandate laws in Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, which have persisted despite updated guidance from the CDC practically begging even the vaccinated to return to wearing masks indoors in high-risk areas.
Even Hutchinson’s about-face is only a retreat from the most hardline position. While the governor is calling for a special session of the Arkansas legislature to reconsider the ban on mask mandates, he is only in support of a replacement measure that would create an exemption for schools with students under 12. As the Week noted, Hutchinson does not support retracting the ban for cities and he responded to a question on why he doesn’t support an exemption for schools with students over the age of 12 with “Because there’s a remedy for them. They need to get vaccinated.” According to the New York Times, on Tuesday he was publicly skeptical that the GOP-controlled state legislature will actually end up supporting any changes to the ban.
Last month, Hutchinson told CNN he opposed the sort of vaccination mandates now being implemented for federal government employees and those at many major businesses, saying it would “cause a greater reaction of negativity toward the government, and then imposition on freedom.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is staking his political reputation on the claim his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic was a winner, shares with Hutchinson the distinction of overseeing a state where the CDC now considers every county to be undergoing “high transmission” of covid. He mocked the CDC in a recent speech to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in Salt Lake City.
According to the Florida Phoenix, DeSantis told attendees the agency is “potentially seeking to do more things into the future, and I think it’s very important that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions, and no mandates.” A recent survey by St. Pete Polls found evidence public sentiment may be turning against DeSantis as Florida hospitalizations from the virus spike to unprecedented levels, with former governor and U.S. Representative Charlie Crist closing a double-digit gap to lead 45-44% in a potential head-to-head matchup. So, the possibility that DeSantis will also come to regret his decision to ally himself with the virus grows stronger by the day.