Schools sue and mayor defies Arkansas mask mandate ban

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson stands next to a chart displaying COVID-19 hospitalization data as he speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, July 29, 2021. Hutchinson announced he was calling a special session to take up a proposal to lift the state’s ban on face mask mandates in public schools. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ ban on mask mandates faced new legal challenges -- including from a school district where more than 800 staff and students are quarantining because of a COVID-19 outbreak -- and defiance from the mayor of the state capital as Republican lawmakers rejected efforts to roll back the prohibition.

The Little Rock and Marion school districts asked a state judge to block the law Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed in April prohibiting schools and other governmental bodies from requiring masks. Little Rock's mayor, meanwhile, issued an order requiring masks in the city's public spaces.

Hutchinson called the Legislature back into session this week to consider rolling back the ban for schools but faced heavy opposition from fellow Republicans. There have been growing calls to lift the ban as Arkansas' coronavirus cases spiral ahead of classes resuming statewide later this month.

But a House committee Thursday rejected two proposals to allow school boards to require masks in buildings where children under 12 may be present. The move means lawmakers on Friday will likely adjourn the session called to revisit the bans without any action on the issue.

Hutchinson said he was disappointed by the Legislature's refusal to act.

“It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow local school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine," he said in a statement.

The schools' lawsuit argues that the ban violates Arkansas' constitution. It seeks a temporary order blocking the prohibition while the lawsuit is considered. Another lawsuit by two parents challenging the ban is going before a state judge Friday morning.

“No rational reason exists for denying public school students, teachers and staff, and the school boards which are obligated to keep them safe, the ability to ensure that all who work and learn in our public schools are as safe as possible," the schools' lawsuit said.

The Marion School District on Thursday said 839 students and 10 staff have quarantined since classes began last week because of its outbreak. The district said in a Facebook post that 46 students and 10 staff have tested positive for the virus.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott's order would only apply to city-owned parks and facilities, but Scott also urged private businesses to require masks. The rule takes effect on Friday and will be in effect through the end of the month.

“It is time to act. It is time to do what is best for the residents of Little Rock," Scott said at a news conference at city hall.

The state's coronavirus cases rose by more than 2,700 and the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations grew by 19 to 1,251. The state reported 17 new deaths from COVID-19.

Heading into this week's session, Republican legislative leaders said there weren't enough votes to change the mask mandate ban. The move faced an even bigger hurdle since it needed at least two-thirds support to take effect before classes begin later this month.

“The days of big government mandates over the will of the people are done," Republican Sen. Trent Garner, who sponsored the mask mandate ban law, tweeted after the panel's votes.

The bills rejected Thursday included one backed by a Republican lawmaker that would have allowed school boards to impose mask requirements for up to 60 days if the rate of virus cases over a two-week period reached a certain threshold. The other bill, backed by a group of Democratic lawmakers did not include the threshold requirement or the 60-day limit.

The state's mask mandate ban exempts Arkansas' Department of Corrections, and a Democratic lawmaker called it “unconscionable" that the state would allow mask requirements to protect inmates but not children.

“Society all the time makes modest sacrifices for the common good," Rep. Deborah Ferguson, the House committee's vice chair, said before the vote. “This is not about I don’t want my child to wear a mask. This is about all children wearing a mask to protect other children."

Pediatricians and health officials say masks in schools are needed to protect children, as the delta variant and Arkansas' low vaccination rate fuels the state's skyrocketing cases.

“The situation we're in is very dire," Dr. Jared Beavers, a pediatrician, told the House panel.

Lawmakers have been inundated with calls, texts and emails from opponents of allowing mask mandates, if not the use of masks altogether to stop the spread of COVID-19. During hearings Wednesday and Thursday, opponents who testified against allowing mask requirements in schools repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about masks and the virus.

One woman who testified Thursday falsely suggested COVID-19 wasn't real, saying lawmakers should ask the state's top health official to provide proof of its existence. Another woman who spoke against the bill wore a shirt that read, “Just say no to: masks vaccines mandates."

Republican Rep. Julie Mayberry, who sponsored the narrower attempt to allow some school mask mandates, said the state may need to consider delaying the start of school.

“I don't want to delay school, but that's I think possibly the only other tool we have," she said.

House and Senate leaders said they expected to adjourn the session Friday morning after giving final approval to the only piece of legislation that advanced during the session.

That measure was aimed at preventing the state from having to resume making supplemental unemployment payments to 69,000 residents. The bill was in response to a judge's ruling last week that said state law indicated the Legislature, not the governor, had the authority to end the payments.