Arkansas governor: I shouldn't have signed the law banning local mask mandates

A conundrum: At what point should the conservative preference for local policymaking yield to the impulse to prevent local governments from making bad policies?

A few months ago, with the pandemic receding in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a DeSantis-esque bill barring local governments from reinstating COVID mandates without state approval. His signature was academic; the law would have passed anyway with supermajority support in the legislature if he had vetoed it. And a veto would have been unpopular, viewed as unnecessary in light of the hope that America was largely done with the virus.

Hutchinson told reporters today that he still supports the ban on mandates with respect to adults. It’s silly to require someone who’s eligible for vaccination to mask up or socially distance, he argued. They can protect themselves by getting their shots, the only way to meaningfully reduce the risk of infection. But there’s one cohort that can’t do it: Kids under 12. They’ll be ineligible for the vaccine for a few months more. And so, he said, he wishes local officials retained the authority to order mask mandates in elementary and middle schools, a measure that might reduce the risk of infection to kids at the margins.

Republicans broadly despise the idea of kids being forced to mask. Children almost never suffer serious complications from infection but they may suffer developmental setbacks if masks keep them from learning facial cues in social interactions. Mask mandates in schools probably do more harm than good.

Should the state stand aside and grant local governments the authority to make that mistake if it represents the will of their community, though? Yes, says Hutchinson. Few Republicans, especially activist Republicans, will agree.

We looked yesterday at the mystery of how much danger kids are in from Delta. The closest thing we have to an answer at the moment is “Probably more than they were from previous strains, but no one’s sure.” On the one hand:

Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas’s health secretary, shared during the press conference that nearly 19% of all active COVID cases in the state are under 18 and that more than half of that number are under 12.

“Between April and July of this year there’s been a 517% increase in the number of cases in people under 18 with a nearly 690% increase in cases for children 12 and under. There’s be an increase of nearly 270% in hospitalization among individuals less than 18 years of age,” said Dr. Romero.

On the other hand, the raw numbers are low. And not every state is seeing a statewide surge in kids getting sick, although certain hard-hit communities are:

I posted this new data from Gallup in another thread yesterday but it’s worth looking again at it here. *Nationally*, despite the right-wing upset at masking students, parents on average are okay with it:

One easy response to those numbers is that they still don’t justify school mask mandates. Parents who are worried about their kids can send them to school with masks; parents who aren’t should be able to opt not to. But I think Hutchinson would argue here too that the state treats kids differently from how it treats adults. Just as CPS can step in to protect a child’s welfare when his parents aren’t doing it, the local school district should be able to step in and order masking for the child’s benefit. School districts have been demanding proof of vaccination against various illnesses for ages as a condition for children being allowed to attend class. Why can’t they treat masks the same way?

But you can turn that logic around. If the state has a responsibility to protect children, and if it’s convinced that masks do more harm than good for those children, shouldn’t it ban local mandates that may damage them?

Hutchinson wants the legislature to rescind the bill he signed earlier and let local officials set the policy for schools. But Republican lawmakers aren’t going to go for it and those same local officials are probably glad. They don’t want to be stuck in the middle of a culture-war battle with parents over whether their kids should need to mask or not. If the state wants to protect kids from infection, though, there’s an obvious alternative step it could take, one which even otherwise union-friendly liberals like Jonathan Chait endorse: Mandate vaccines for public-school teachers.

So the Delta variant supposedly presents a medical threat so dire that it could potentially limit schooling for the third year in a row. But it’s not serious enough to justify a vaccine requirement for teachers.

That this resistance could even exist, let alone be lionized, might seem unfathomable. Requiring teachers get vaccinated seems completely obvious from the standpoint of both public health and public education. But if you discount the benefit of in-person schooling — remember, the need to reopen schools is just a “narrative” pushed by testing companies, with racist overtones to boot — then you don’t see any great benefit from vaccinating the workforce. Indeed, vaccinating the teachers will simply lead to more pressure to keep the schools open, even if the Delta wave continues. And since vaccines don’t offer complete protection, forcing teachers to work in schools with unvaccinated students means subjecting them to non-zero risk.

Normally a bruising fight to keep kids safe against a union despised by Republicans would be an obvious winner for a GOP governor in a blood red state. But Arkansas has one of the lowest shares of fully vaccinated residents of any state in the U.S. and Hutchinson’s public tour to encourage vaccination has often been greeted with hostility by attendees. Forced to choose between a pro-vax leader from their own party and an anti-vax labor outfit putting their own kids at risk in class, righty populists may well side with the latter on balance.

I’ll leave you with Joe Scarborough calling Ron DeSantis a socialist because he insisted on statewide bans on local mandates instead of letting local officials call their own shots.