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Little Rock board to weigh call for mask-law revisions

Proposed resolution urges state leaders to act by Joseph Flaherty | August 3, 2021 at 7:04 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

The Little Rock Board of Directors at a meeting this evening will consider a symbolic resolution asking state lawmakers to reconsider Act 1002, the measure approved earlier this year that bars local governments from imposing mask mandates.

The measure cites the "rampant" presence of the delta variant of covid-19 in the state -- in addition to other variants circulating in the region -- along with public-health guidance on masking in areas of high transmission.

The proposed resolution states, "[T]he elected governing bodies in a local area should have the discretion under the police power to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, as appropriate based upon identified risks such as the presence and high transmission rates the Delta variant currently imposes."

According to the resolution, the governor and General Assembly are encouraged to review and amend Act 1002 so a local mask mandate could be imposed if the Arkansas Department of Health, alone or with the help of federal authorities, determined that any local government is in an area of high transmission.

The text of one section of the resolution is slightly ambiguous on whether the law should be amended to allow the Department of Health to make the final decision to impose a mask requirement, or if that decision should be left to the local governing body.

However, the preamble to the measure suggests that the intent of the resolution is to advocate that local governments be allowed to make the call on masks.

Last week, Hutchinson said he would call a special legislative session to amend Act 1002 to grant school districts the authority to make decisions about face coverings.

He emphasized that no statewide mask mandate would be imposed.

"This is a discussion about the school environment where schools can make decisions to add to the public health for their own school environment and for the children that they have a responsibility to protect," Hutchinson said at a news conference.

The law, sponsored by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, blocks the state government, as well as local governments and school districts, from mandating face coverings. Exceptions exist for certain state-owned or controlled health care facilities and for Department of Corrections facilities.

Private enterprises are still allowed to require masks.

Hutchinson signed the legislation on April 29. It took effect Wednesday.

A statewide mask mandate that Hutchinson issued in the summer of 2020 was allowed to expire in late March.

In the aftermath of that decision, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. sought to keep a local face-covering mandate in place. He chose to lift the local mandate in May in light of guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the wearing of masks by vaccinated individuals.

At a city board meeting last week, Scott underscored the seriousness of the ongoing surge in virus cases and hospitalizations in Arkansas.

Scott said that "there are going to be certain decisions that will be made, or have to be made, to protect the public health, safety and welfare of our residents."

He added, "We have not made any decisions at this point, but it's something that we are following the data -- we are following the science, we are listening to our health care providers as we want to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of Little Rock."

City Director Dean Kumpuris, an at-large representative on the board and a gastroenterologist who chairs the city's covid-19 task force, said the challenge last year was the availability of equipment such as personal protective gear and respirators.

The problem now is the availability of health care workers to care for covid-19 patients, Kumpuris said at the meeting last week.

Looking ahead, he noted the two-week lag period that accompanies the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before individuals are considered fully immunized.

Kumpuris said that "we're getting ready to go through a really bad five-week period," adding, "There's nothing that we can do about it other than be safe, and that's washing your hands, wearing your mask, practice social distancing, and we just have to all work together."

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