(The Center Square) – Emotions ran high on both sides of the State Capitol grounds in Frankfort on Tuesday morning. In the Annex, the Kentucky General Assembly’s Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee heard testimony on the mask mandates Gov. Andy Beshear and the State Board of Education enacted last week.
Across the street, as testimony and questioning continued in the hearing, Beshear and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack gave a grim forecast for the state regarding COVID-19.
“The healthcare capacity is going to get really difficult here in the weeks ahead,” Stack said.
Hospitals in states like Alabama and Mississippi have called Kentucky facilities asking if they can receive intensive-care patients. Meanwhile, some of Kentucky’s smaller, rural hospitals are dealing with their own shortages.
Stack noted Kentucky is just days away from setting a new high for ICU bed usage among COVID patients. It was at 429 as of Monday.
Stack said patients who face issues other than the coronavirus will soon find their level of care impacted.
Last week, Beshear ordered people aged 2 and up to wear masks in all schools and daycares across the state. On Tuesday, he said an even larger mask mandate is possible. As cases have risen elsewhere due to the COVID-19 delta variant, states like Louisiana and Nevada have required masks in all indoor public facilities.
But Beshear did rule out closures and capacity restrictions, saying masks and vaccinations will contain the spread.
“If we run out of beds for people who are injured or sick or have a heart attack, don’t we have to do something,” Beshear said. “Don’t we have to do something to make sure we’ve got that capacity for everybody?”
Republican lawmakers, though, have disagreed with the Democratic governor’s actions, which led to the hearing that lasted longer than three hours.
Advocates on both sides of the issue testified before lawmakers.
Pragya Upreti told lawmakers she should have been in class at Lafayette High School in Lexington. Still, the senior felt it was important to represent the Kentucky Student Voice Team at the hearing.
The student-based advocacy and research group supports the mask order set by the governor and the subsequent one approved by the state Board of Education last week.
She said having to wear masks in school helps ensure kids don’t have to go back to online learning and social isolation.
“Sometimes, we need to think of our commonwealth ahead of our own comfort,” Upreti said.
However, several opponents to the mandates told lawmakers they were frustrated at what they considered was an overreach by the governor. Before enacting the order Aug. 10, Beshear and state health officials urged local school boards to approve mask mandates in their schools.
Less than a third did.
Opponents of the mandates also questioned the ability of the masks to stop viruses.
Dawne Perkins, founder of “Let Them Play,” told the panel the state now faces a third year of interruptions to everyday school routines.
“Let Them Play” started last year as a group the set out to save youth sports seasons from being canceled. Since then, Perkins said the organization became a grassroots political organization that supported such measures as school choice and the “fifth-year” bills.
“(Parents) are extremely worried about the effects that this is having on their children’s mental health, and… they’re concerned about wearing a mask that has no data supporting its ability to stop transmission or its long-term effects on the overall health of children,” she said.
During the press conference, a reporter asked Beshear about the opponents’ anti-mask claims. That prompted him to point to studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding their effectiveness. He also added the state’s experience with them in schools.
“It worked when we brought students back in the last school year,” he said. “We’ve already seen it… So, we’ve got to separate those that are going to challenge direct truth and facts simply because they wished the reality was different.”
After the testimony, lawmakers questioned State Education Commissioner Dr. Jason Glass on his decision last week to ask the Board to pass a mask mandate. In particular, they wondered why he did even though a panel of 11 superintendents reviewing the proposed order refused to endorse it.
“Does the state school board and yourself, sir, not trust the decisions of our local superintendents and their boards,” state Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington, asked Glass.
Glass, a former superintendent, said he respected their powers and believed that local authority is important on most issues.
However, he added that local authorities and boards often face local political pressures.
“You’re not dealing, again, with a localized issue,” he said. “You’re dealing with a statewide issue.”
On 5-2 party-line votes, the committee voted to find orders requiring masks in public schools and daycares to be deficient. Under state law, regulations found to be deficient are sent to the governor for his determination.
Beshear upheld the orders. However, the votes will allow lawmakers to take action against the mandates when the 2022 General Assembly session convenes in January.