Beshear calls special session on pandemic; extent of his authority to issue mask mandates is likely most critical, contentious issue

Beshear calls special session on pandemic; extent of his authority to issue mask mandates is likely most critical, contentious issue

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The Kentucky General Assembly will meet in special session at 10 a.m. Tuesday, under a call issued Saturday afternoon by Gov. Andy Beshear, to set state policy for the pandemic as it continues its record surge.

Beshear has issued many edicts under a state of emergency that he declared almost 18 months ago, but the legislature passed laws last winter to limit his emergency powers, and two weeks ago the state Supreme Court upheld them.

"In previous surges the governor, me, was empowered to act, to do what was necessary … to save lives," Beshear said at a news conference, "Now that burden will fall in large part on the General Assembly."

Beshear said he and legislative leaders have agreed on how to approach many issues, but not on the one that may be the most critical and divisive: power to require face coverings to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

"I believe this authority is absolutely necessary, as we would not have been able to stop the previous surges without using it. We would not have been able to flatten the curve without the ability to require masking," he said. "That kept our emergency rooms and hospitals from overflowing . . . We're already to that stage now, so I think that it's necessary."

The governor said he doesn't expect legislators to give him general authority to require masking, but hopes they will let him impose mask mandates in counties with a certain level of infection, as shown on the state's color-coded map.

"If a local government can keep the infection levels low, in the green or even in the yellow, then maybe they would make that determination," he said. "But when it gets to orange or especially red, you know, sometimes it's easier to make the call here than what some other people might face"

He explained later, "I certainly think a red county . . . if a local government will not require indoor masking when you're out of your house … it's something the state should be allowed to do, at least during the Delta variant," which has caused the current surge.

The orange zone is for counties where the seven-day average of daily new cases is more than 1 per 10,000 residents. Only two counties, Carlisle and Woodford, are now in orange; the rest are in red, signifying rates of 2.5 per 10,000, which state health officials consider a high rate of virus transmission.

"Right now, we need it everywhere," Beshear said. "We have more cases per week than we ever seen,” and more Covid-19 patients in hospitals and intensive-care units than ever. "My worry is that we will have more deaths, in a short period of time, than we've ever seen."

The first big debates on the issue are likely to be in private, in the party caucuses of the House and Senate. "I know this is one that will be a contentious issue within the caucus or within in the General Assembly itself," the Democratic governor said, referring to the Republican majorities that control the legislature.

Governors set limits for special sessions when they call them. Beshear's call for the session allows the legislature to extend the state of emergency he declared March until Jan. 15, when the legislature will be in regular session; and to "set forth the criteria pursuant to which the governor may exercise authority to require facial coverings in indoor settings" during the emergency.

"I hope we can have a constructive, if we can, a low-drama experience," Beshear said, thanking legislative leaders and the staffs for the work they have already done. He said they have shared drafts of legislation.

The call also includes approving executive-branch orders issued under the emergency declaration, providing flexibility for school districts to use "alternatives to in-person instruction," give employees additional sick-leave days, "provide funding stability" to schools and use of $69.2 million in federal pandemic relief money. Those uses do not include support for extra staffing for hospitals and nursing homes, for which they asked a legislative committee, some members of which endorsed the request.

Beshear said he does not expect the session to last longer than five days, ending Saturday. He said his understanding of the Supreme Court ruling is that it becomes final at midnight Friday night. "I think they will come to consensus pretty early on what they want to do," he said.

Five days is the minimum length of a session that enacts laws, unless the legislature suspends the state constitution's rule that bills be read in each chamber three times on separate days.

Beshear closed his press conference with a warning about the Delta variant: “If you are unvaccinated you’ll get it, and unfortunately, you're likely to get very sick.”

Cross-posted from KY Health News

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