An Arkansas judge Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its mask mandates ban after lawmakers kept it in place despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction against the law that Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed in April banning mask requirements by governmental entities, the Associated Press reported.
The ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one from a district where more than 800 staff and students are quarantining because of a coronavirus outbreak, the news agency reported.
Fox’s ruling cited multiple grounds, including that it discriminated between public and private schools; it came hours after lawmakers adjourned a special session that Hutchinson had called to consider rolling back the ban for some schools.
Hutchinson had said the change was needed to protect children under 12 who can't get vaccinated as the state's virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket.
"I think we're going to come to really regret not taking action," Democrat Sen. Keith Ingram, the state House minority leader, said. "I just hope the consequences aren't fatal for children or staff or teachers in this state," the AP reported.
Pediatricians and health officials have said masks in schools are needed to protect children, as the delta variant and Arkansas' low vaccination rate fuels the state's spiraling cases. The state on Monday reported its biggest one-day increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began, and the Department of Health on Thursday said only 36 intensive care unit beds were available in the state, the AP reported.
Hutchinson had faced opposition from fellow Republicans.
"You try to talk to someone about this, but there's so much misinformation that's out there you have to try to dispel that and then they'll go to another one and do that and you've got to do that all the way down to keep them from getting upset at you before you can ever talk to them about it," GOP Senate President Jimmy Hickey said, the AP reported.
Hutchinson said this week he regretted signing the mask mandate ban, telling reporters that "in hindsight, I wish that had not become law," CNN reported.
Hutchinson noted he did so when the state's cases were much lower and that the Legislature could have easily overridden him had he vetoed the measure.
The Republican sponsor of the mandate ban said he thinks the state needs to focus on other ways to address outbreaks in schools, such as leave for teachers who have to quarantine.
"What I don't want is this false sense of security that masks seem to be providing because it's an easy political tool," said GOP Sen. Trent Garner, AP reported. "Let's come up with the real solutions when this happens in our schools, and I think we're woefully inadequate on that."
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