FRANKFORT: Kentucky lawmakers, many not wearing masks, voted Thursday to scrap a statewide mask mandate in public schools and shifted masking decisions to local school boards, acting in a special session as the state's worst COVID-19 surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals.
The GOP-dominated legislature set education policies in response to disruptions caused by the virus, which has forced dozens of districts to close classrooms. The masking provisions sparked emotional debate on the third day of the special session called by the Democratic governor to address the pandemic.
Gov. Andy Beshear responded late Thursday night by vetoing portions of the bill nullifying mask mandates for K-12 public schools and child-care centers. The Republican-dominated legislature quickly mounted efforts to override the governor's action.
Beshear's veto message referred to masks as a "safe and effective way" to combat the spread of COVID-19. The governor previously issued statewide mask mandates and recently said he thought another mask order was needed to confront the current surge.
The special session marked a power shift in the state's response to the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Beshear acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, saying his actions saved lives. Republicans criticized him for what they branded as overly broad and stringent restrictions.
The special session comes as Kentucky's hospitals struggle with a record influx of virus cases. Beshear warned Thursday that only 90 adult intensive care beds were available statewide. He noted nearly two-thirds of Kentucky's hospitals face critical staffing shortages, and more than 300 Kentucky National Guard members will be headed to 21 hospitals to assist health care workers. "Our hospital situation has never been more dire in my lifetime than it is right now," Beshear said.
Working into the night, Republican lawmakers asserted their newfound dominance in shaping Kentucky's pandemic policies - the result of a state Supreme Court ruling last month. The court cleared the way for laws to take effect limiting the governor's emergency powers to impose virus restrictions.
The governor responded by calling the legislature into session. The school-related bill would nullify the state school board's requirement that anyone in public K-12 schools wear a mask. It also would end a separate state mask mandate for child-care centers.
Another bill winning final passage Thursday night would impose a prolonged ban on any statewide mask mandate, leaving masking decisions up to local governments and businesses. It was part of a broad measure addressing medical staffing, vaccines, tests and treatments related to COVID-19.
Beshear vetoed the mask provisions in that bill as well, prompting another quick override attempt. The legislature also passed a measure to appropriate more than $69 million in federal funds for pandemic-related efforts.
The funds are aimed at increasing COVID-19 testing for health care providers, schools, health departments and correctional facilities. During debate on the schools bill, supporters said mask decisions are best left to local boards, to reflect the will of their communities.
"This bill will give local control back to the districts - not mandating they do, not mandating they don't. They make the decision of what they think is best for their constituents in their communities," said Republican Sen. Max Wise, the bill's sponsor.
Opponents warned that lifting the mask mandate would put children and school staffs at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. By putting the burden on school boards to decide mask policies, Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said the legislature was abdicating its responsibility.
"I think you are asking for fights in school board meetings, where parents are going to be intimidated, where school board members are going to be intimidated," Berg said.