Why Arkansas’ governor declared a public health state of emergency again

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he had no plans to postpone the start of the school year for public schools or to reimpose a statewide mask mandate or place restrictions on businesses. “This is all about the children and their health.” More photos at arkansasonline.com/730gov/.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he had no plans to postpone the start of the school year for public schools or to reimpose a statewide mask mandate or place restrictions on businesses. “This is all about the children and their health.” More photos at arkansasonline.com/730gov/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday reinstated Arkansas' public health emergency, a move set to be voted on today by the Legislature thanks to a new state law.

The governor also announced he would call a special session to lift a state law's ban on mask requirements for kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools.

Back up: What exactly is a public health emergency declaration?

The governor has the authority to declare a state of emergency, which gives the executive branch latitude to create temporary rules and regulations.

For example, the pandemic rules for businesses that Hutchinson put in place starting in spring 2020 were possible only because the state was in a declared emergency. The state has not been in a declared emergency since May 31.

Why is Hutchinson reinstating the emergency?

Coronavirus cases have surged in the last few weeks to levels comparable to the height of the pandemic in January, and hospital emergency rooms statewide are near or at capacity.

Declaring the emergency allows Arkansas to ask other states for help with providing health care and allows the state to make it easier for certain health care workers to gain licensure, such as those who have retired but want to re-enter the field.

Although Hutchinson could also use the emergency declaration to put restrictions on businesses again, he said he does not plan to do so.

What happens next?

In the past, an emergency could be declared and it would stay in effect unless the legislature voted to end it through a concurrent resolution.

However, during the spring 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill that Hutchinson signed into law that gives the Legislature more say in public health emergencies.

It requires the House and Senate to each meet in a "committee of the whole" within eight business days of a public health emergency declaration to vote on a resolution terminating the emergency. The Legislature will voted today to let the order stand.

Okay — what is going on with masks for school children?

When he announced the emergency declaration, Hutchinson also announced he would call a special session of the General Assembly to vote on allowing mask mandates in K-12 public schools.

A law passed during the legislative session bans mask mandates from local and state governments, including school districts, but Hutchinson is seeking an exception for K-12 schools that would allow districts to institute a mandate if desired.

The governor said because many school children are too young to be vaccinated, it is important to give districts the opportunity to require masks to help protect students as they head back to the classroom this month.

Read more about the announcements from reporter Andy Davis and read about legislators’ perspectives on today’s vote and the coming special session.