The sponsor of a state law that bars most public entities from requiring face masks was unmoved by Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desire to amend the legislation to allow school districts to mandate them.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, whose district includes parts of Pine Bluff, said Monday he was "extremely disappointed" that the governor planned to call a special session in an attempt to override Garner's bill, which became law as Act 1002 and went into effect last week.
"I still strongly disagree with mask mandates," Garner said. "I don't think the governor should bring this 'big government' mandate and try to put it in place over parents. I'll fight that mandate as much as I can."
On Thursday, Hutchinson declared a statewide health emergency, saying that hospitals were full and some patients were lying in ambulances waiting for beds to open.
The governor said he had reached out to the federal government for help. Hutchinson also said he was going to call a special session and ask the legislature to amend Act 1002 to allow school districts to require masks be worn.
Act 1002 bars most government entities from requiring masks.
Hutchinson said the law needed to be changed because the delta variant of covid-19 is putting young people at risk. While those 12 and older can get vaccinations, he said those under 12 are at risk of getting the coronavirus.
As evidence of the severity of the delta variant, Hutchinson pointed out that more youngsters were having to be hospitalized, with Arkansas Children's Hospital reporting that some were on ventilators. School starts in about two weeks.
Garner said lawmakers planned on showing up at the Capitol today to consider the health emergency declaration, and then would be there on Wednesday for the special session. As of Monday afternoon, however, the governor had not yet called for the session.
"I don't see that there will be any controversy on Tuesday with the emergency declaration," Garner said. "The controversy will be on Wednesday with the call for a special session."
Garner said the decision about whether a child should or shouldn't wear a mask at school should be left up to parents "who are smart enough to make educated choices."
"The reality is that we are in the middle of a pandemic that is going to be with us a long time," Garner said. "I think, at this point, we can't keep doing the same exact things that have failed us for 18 months. We need to empower parents to make the right choices and I think they will."
Garner said he had heard from "literally thousands of parents" who were against mask wearing for several reasons. Some parents said they didn't think masks were effective, interrupted the learning process and wearing a mask all day was dangerous, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended that even vaccinated people should wear a mask indoors in public if they are in an area of low vaccination rates.
Arkansas is one of the states reporting the lowest percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated. The federal health agency has also recommended that all students, teachers, staff and visitors in schools wear masks without regard to vaccination status.
Asked what, as a parent, he would do, Garner said he had two children in daycare, "and I haven't masked them once."
"I think masks are marginally effective, and we shouldn't be putting our faith in them," he said.
Garner said he had talked to fellow lawmakers and said the idea of amending the legislation was "deeply unpopular" with many of them.
Even if the law was amended, he said getting two-thirds of lawmakers to enact an emergency clause was "almost impossible." Without an emergency clause, the amended measure wouldn't go into effect for 90 days, rendering it useless as an immediate guard against the spread of covid.
As for the covid vaccines, Garner said he wouldn't encourage or discourage people to get the vaccines, preferring to leave that decision up to the individual and their doctors.
"I'm not anti-vaccine," he said. "I am anti government telling you to do it."
Asked if he had been vaccinated, Garner declined to answer.
"That's a personal medical question and I won't answer it," he said.