The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arkansas banned mask mandates. As schools get ready to reopen, the governor says he regrets signing the law.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Aug. 3 asked the General Assembly to amend a mask mandate ban to give school districts the flexibility to enact mask rules. (Video: Governor Asa Hutchinson)

Mere months after Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill that banned local mask mandates across Arkansas, the state’s top Republican has asked lawmakers to reconsider the prohibition so school districts might require children to don face coverings when they return to classrooms this fall.

“In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

In March, when covid-19 cases were declining, Hutchinson allowed a statewide mask mandate to expire. About a month later, he signed a bill that barred local officials from requiring face coverings.

Now, Hutchinson wants to undo that legislation. On Tuesday, he called for a special session to reevaluate the ban.

The governor’s plea comes amid swiftly rising numbers of new coronavirus infections across Arkansas, which — like much of the South — has seen a resurgence of the virus in recent weeks. At the news conference, Hutchinson said while he is not in favor of a statewide mask mandate, local directives should be a tool available to school districts because children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated.

“The local school districts should make the call, and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education,” he said.

Jose Romero, Arkansas’s health secretary, said at the news conference that infection rates among children had exploded in recent months. He said that between April and July cases among those under 18 had increased by more than 500 percent. Hospitalizations for that age group also spiked by nearly 270 percent.

Meanwhile, Arkansas has lagged behind in vaccinating eligible adults, with less than 37 percent of residents fully vaccinated. In the past week, hospitalizations increased by nearly 20 percent and deaths increased by 70 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis. More than 97 percent of the people who have died of coronavirus-related causes this year were unvaccinated, Hutchinson said on Tuesday.

The recent spike in cases mirrors a similar trend across the South, where Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri lead the nation with highest daily reported cases per capita over the last week.

But anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments have thrived in many of those states. In St. Louis, protesters clashed with local health officials after the county implemented a new mask mandate amid rising cases. Florida has reported record numbers of coronavirus infections this week as several variants, including the highly infectious delta variant, have been found in the state. Growing hot spots in Louisiana and Arkansas have driven previously hesitant people to vaccination clinics, though overall immunization rates in those states remain low.

Even as Hutchinson endorsed mask mandates in schools, leaders in other Republican-led states have derided the idea. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) threatened to cut funding to school districts that implemented mandated mask policies. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) claimed on Tuesday that students “can’t learn” while wearing masks, the State reported.

Hutchinson conceded on Tuesday that many of his fellow Arkansas Republicans are likely to oppose rolling back the law and allowing school districts to implement mask policies, regardless of the skyrocketing infections across the state.

“I understand that some legislators are reluctant to allow school boards this freedom, even in this limited way,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “But the exceptions for which I am asking are true to the conservative principle that puts control in the hands of local government.”