Kentucky GOP Overrides Governor Andy Beshear, Ends Statewide School Mask Mandate

Kentucky's GOP-dominated legislature overrode Governor Andy Beshear's statewide mask mandate, ending the requirement for masks to be worn in K-12 schools and child-care centers.

Republican lawmakers voted to shift mask mandate decisions to local school boards. Though Beshear vetoed parts of the bill that removed requirements for K-12 and child-care centers, Republicans overrode his veto and ended the statewide mask mandates, which Beshear had implemented as a strategy to handle COVID-19.

The state is currently seeing its worst COVID-19 surge that threatens to overwhelm hospitals, and lawmakers acted during a special session called by the governor to address the pandemic as state hospitals struggle to handle the new virus cases.

Beshear warned Thursday that Kentucky only has 90 adult intensive care beds available statewide. He added that nearly two-thirds of Kentucky's hospitals are facing critical staffing shortages, and more than 300 Kentucky National Guard members are being dispatched to assist health care workers at 21 hospitals.

"Our hospital situation has never been more dire in my lifetime than it is right now," Beshear said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Gov. Andy Beshear
The Kentucky GOP voted to override Governor Andy Beshear's statewide mask mandate during a special session the Democratic governor called to address the pandemic. Beshear speaks with UofL Health staff and volunteers at University of Louisville Cardinal Stadium on April 12, 2021 in Louisville. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

The GOP-dominated legislature set education policies in response to disruptions caused by the virus, which has forced dozens of school districts to close classrooms. The masking provisions sparked emotional debate on the third and final day of the special session.

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 branded his actions as overly broad and stringent.

Working late 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.

Another bill winning final passage Thursday night imposed 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 also vetoed mask provisions in that bill. Republican lawmakers swiftly overrode that veto as well.

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. The governor signed that measure into law, his office said.

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," said Republican Senator Max Wise, the bill's sponsor. "They make the decision of what they think is best for their constituents in their communities."

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 Senator 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.

Senator Morgan McGarvey, the chamber's top-ranking Democrat, said removing blanket masking protections comes when the Delta variant is infecting more young Kentuckians. More than 300,000 Kentucky students aren't old enough to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.

"This bill ... is really a life-and-death bill," Democratic Senator Reggie Thomas said. "If we eliminate mask mandates, then we are putting all children and all school personnel at severe risk."

In the House, Democratic Representative Pamela Stevenson warned the virus is so pervasive that the lack of masking requirements in schools would mean that children are going "into the lion's den."

Republican Representative John Blanton countered that the bill removes a "one-size-fits-all" approach.

"We are not taking masks away from your children today," he said. "Masks are still part of the tools that's provided for each and every school district across this state."

Beshear had asked legislators to give him authority to, at a minimum, require masking when COVID-19 infection rates reach high levels.

The school measure gives districts more scheduling flexibility to cope with virus outbreaks. It allows local school leaders to limit remote instruction to a particular school, grade or classroom — depending on the extent of the outbreak — instead of closing the entire district. The overriding goal is to keep children in class when possible, Wise said.

Kentucky COVID-19 Outbreak
Republican lawmakers in Kentucky moved closer Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 to scrapping a statewide mask mandate in public schools, advancing a measure to shift masking decisions to local school boards as a surging COVID-19 outbreak threatens to overwhelm hospitals. In this Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 file photo, Kentucky Senator Morgan McGarvey holds a state map showing infection rate of COVID-19 among Kentucky counties in Frankfort, Ky. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File