LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates after lawmakers left the prohibition 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 ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one from an east Arkansas school district where more than 900 staff and students are quarantining because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Fox ruled the law violates Arkansas' constitution, saying it discriminates between public and private school students. He said it also infringes on the governor's emergency powers, as well as the authority of county officials and the state Supreme Court.
The law “cannot be enforced in any shape, fashion or form" pending further court action, Fox said.
Fox issued the ruling 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.
Hutchinson faced heavy opposition from fellow Republicans, who had been inundated with calls and messages from opponents of masks in schools.
The governor, who has said he regretted signing the ban into law, said he agreed with Fox's decision but didn't plan to reimpose the statewide mask mandate he lifted in March. He also criticized lawmakers who opposed taking action, saying many of them had taken a “casual, if not cavalier, attitude” toward the state's COVID-19 crisis.
“What concerns me is many are simply listening to the loudest voices and not standing up with compassion, common sense and serious action," he told reporters.
Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was talking with the governor and Legislature about the ruling to determine the next steps, her office said. Hutchinson, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the state and legislative leaders, left open the possibility of separately asking the state Supreme Court to uphold Fox's ruling if it's appealed.
There had been growing calls to lift the ban before school starts statewide later this month. The Marion School District, which joined with Little Rock's schools in challenging the ban, on Friday said 949 staff and students have had to quarantine since classes began last week because of a coronavirus outbreak. The district said 54 students and 11 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter warned lawmakers that his district's experience could be a harbinger of what other schools will face. He said Friday he will consult with attorneys and will begin discussing the possibility of a mandate with the local school board.
“This gives us another opportunity again to potentially protect our students," he said.
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 Friday said only 28 intensive care unit beds were available in the state.
Only 37% of the state's population is fully vaccinated against the virus.
Arkansas ranks second in the country for new cases per capita, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The state reported more than 3,000 new virus cases on Friday, bringing its total since the pandemic began to more than 400,000. It also reported 22 new COVID-19 deaths.
Arkansas is among several Republican-led states that banned mask mandates, and GOP figures nationally have been criticizing efforts to require them in schools despite revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Some school districts in Florida and Arizona are defying their state's prohibitions and requiring masks.
Opponents of lifting Arkansas' ban who testified before the Legislature repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about the virus, including a woman who falsely suggested COVID-19 doesn't exist.
“That's what's frustrating, is we're not making decisions on data, respected data," Democratic Rep. Denise Garner, who co-sponsored one of two proposals rejected by a House panel that would have allowed some schools to require masks.
The Republican sponsor of the mandate ban criticized the ruling, calling Fox a “liberal extremist judge."
“He is allowing government to threaten you with penalties if you don’t wear a mask," Sen. Trent Garner tweeted. “But they made a mistake. They didn’t know that we are ready to fight."
The House and Senate on Friday gave final approval to the only other item on the session's agenda, legislation aimed at preventing the state from resuming supplemental unemployment insurance payments to 69,000 people in the state.
A state judge last week ordered Arkansas to resume the payment, ruling that Hutchinson didn't appear to have the authority on his own to cut off the payments. Hutchinson was among more than two dozen GOP governors who ended their states' participation in the federally funded payments, which were scheduled to run through early September.
This story has been corrected to show the ruling was issued Friday
Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press