With COVID-19 infection rates leveling off and vaccination rates increasing, state leaders across the nation have scaled back or repealed existing mandates meant to reduce viral spread.
In Arkansas, state legislators voted on Wednesday to cancel a statewide mask mandate implemented by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Washington Examiner reported. The move came just one day after the governor had allowed the mandate to expire.
“That is what concerned me”
With a 20–9 vote, state senators passed a bill to officially remove the mandate, declaring: “The requirement of face coverings is no longer necessary to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Arkansas and is a burden on the public peace, health, and safety of the citizens of this state.”
State Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican, said the vote was important because of the penalties associated with violating the mandate as well as the possibility that it could be reinstated should conditions change in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.
“This was an individual right being changed, where you as a person had to do this, up to a $500 fine, and so that is what concerned me,” Garner told the Examiner.
He went on to argue that Hutchinson’s “executive order was poorly written, was largely unenforceable, and local police departments said they would not enforce it or could not enforce it as written.”
The governor, on the other hand, claimed the Senate-approved measure would “prohibit private businesses, schools, and hospitals from requirements for face coverings,” declaring that it “is not a good idea” and signaling a willingness to “veto the bill in its current form.”
“You need to continue to mask”
Addressing the governor and other critics, Garner said that the bill was not intended to prevent localities from requiring masks and that an amendment would clarify that point when the bill is presented to the House for a vote.
Several of the state’s more populous cities, as well as many school districts and colleges, have indicated that they plan to continue requiring masks over the next weeks and months.
In February, Hutchinson said his goal was not to renew the mandate when it expired at the end of March. The state’s top health official, however, insisted that the absence of a statewide mandate did not negate the need for masks in public places.
“The removal of the mask mandate is not a statement that we do not need to mask,” said Arkansas Health Secretary Jose Romero. “You need to continue to mask when you leave your home, you need to continue to avoid large gatherings, you need to follow the recommendations of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Only that way can you keep the numbers low as we’re seeing them.”
More than a year after masks were first required in most public spaces, several other states are similarly rolling back their mandates despite President Joe Biden’s pleas to keep them in place.