An Arkansas judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates after lawmakers left the prohibition in place despite a rising number of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction against the law that Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed in April banning mask requirements by governmental entities. The ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one from a district where more than 800 staff and students are quarantining because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Fox ruled against the measure on multiple grounds, including the argument that it discriminated between public and private schools.
The law “cannot be enforced in any shape, fashion or form" pending further court action, Fox said.
The judge's order capped an hour-long hearing on lawsuits challenging the legality of the law, Act 1002 of 2021.
The ruling also came hours after lawmakers adjourned a special session that Hutchinson had called to consider rolling back the ban for some schools.
The judge’s ruling will only last until a trial can be held. That proceeding has yet to be scheduled, but Fox said he intends to expedite the process so the Arkansas Supreme Court can decide the issue on the inevitable appeal.
Hutchinson had said the change was needed to protect children under 12 who can't get vaccinated as the state's virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket.
A House panel on Thursday rejected two measures that would have allowed some school districts to issue mask requirements.
There had been growing calls to lift the ban before school starts statewide later this month.
"I think we're going to come to really regret not taking action," Democratic Sen. Keith Ingram, the chamber's minority leader, said. "I just hope the consequences aren't fatal for children or staff or teachers in this state."
Pediatricians and health officials have said masks in schools are needed to protect children, as the delta variant and Arkansas' low vaccination rate fuels the state's spiraling cases. The state on Monday reported its biggest one-day increase in covid-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began, and the Department of Health on Thursday said only 36 intensive care unit beds were available in the state.
But Hutchinson faced heavy opposition from fellow Republicans, who had been inundated with calls and messages from opponents of masks in schools.
Opponents of lifting the ban who testified before the Legislature repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about the virus, including a woman who falsely suggested covid-19 doesn't exist.
“That's what's frustrating, is we're not making decisions on data, respected data," said Democratic Rep. Denise Garner, who co-sponsored one of the proposals to lift the ban.
Hutchinson said this week he regretted signing the mask mandate ban, telling reporters that "in hindsight, I wish that had not become law." Hutchinson noted he did so when the state's cases were much lower and that the Legislature could have easily overridden him had he vetoed the measure.
The Republican sponsor of the mandate ban said he thinks the state needs to focus on other ways to address outbreaks in schools, such as leave for teachers who have to quarantine.
"What I don't want is this false sense of security that masks seem to be providing because it's an easy political tool," said Republican Sen. Trent Garner. "Let's come up with the real solutions when this happens in our schools, and I think we're woefully inadequate on that."
The House and Senate on Friday gave final approval to the only other item on the session's agenda, legislation aimed at preventing the state from resuming supplemental unemployment insurance payments to 69,000 people in the state.
A state judge last week ordered Arkansas to resume the payment, ruling that Hutchinson didn't appear to have the authority on his own to cut off the payments. Hutchinson was among more than two dozen GOP governors who ended their states' participation in the federally funded payments, which were scheduled to run through early September.
CORRECTION: Pulaski County Circuit Jude Tim Fox issued the preliminary injunction on Friday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the day he issued the preliminary injunction.
Information for this article was contributed by Democrat-Gazette reporter John Lynch
This story has been updated. It was originally published at 9:23 a.m.