Arkansas Health Secretary Urges Masks for School Children

Lawmakers meet Wednesday to discuss amending a new law banning mask mandates.

Health Secretary Dr. José Romero speaks at a podium while a man to his left uses sign language
Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. José Romero discusses the impact of the Delta variant on children during a press conference Aug. 3, 2021.

Vaccination efforts are ramping up as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state. Nearly 31,000 Arkansans received a shot during the last 24 hours and 14 counties have now vaccinated at least 50 percent of their population. Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed his gratitude during a press conference this afternoon.

“Thank you, Arkansans, for doing more research, talking to your physicians, getting information, trusted sources and making that decision that helps us all,” Hutchinson said.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 2,343 new cases and 16 virus related deaths today. Hospitalizations increased by 30 to 1,250, continuing to strain the state’s hospitals who had fewer than 40 ICU beds available Monday afternoon.

The Delta variant is the dominant strain of the virus in Arkansas and it’s having a big impact on children. As of Aug. 1, nearly 19 percent of all active cases were in children under the age of 18. Kids younger than 12 account for more than half of that percentage. Among children under 18 who were hospitalized in July, 58 percent were patients younger than 12 years old. 

“I think these numbers exemplify and bring out a very sobering aspect of the pandemic in our state — we have a group of individuals that are extremely susceptible to infection because they do not have eligibility for a vaccine,” Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said.

To date, a COVID-19 vaccine has not been approved for use in children younger than 12. About 32 percent of Arkansans 12 to 18 years old have received one dose of the vaccine and more than 18 percent are fully vaccinated.

“I share this number with you so that we can increase our immunization numbers among those that can receive it and that we can encourage the use of masking,” Romero said. “As the governor said, we do not have a mandate, but I clearly recommend this for children going to school.”

Act 1002, passed earlier this year by lawmakers, prohibits state agencies from issuing mandatory face covering requirements. Gov. Hutchinson has called a special session of the General Assembly who will convene tomorrow morning to consider amending the law to allow public school districts to make their own decisions on masking. 

Hutchinson said he signed the bill into law earlier this year because cases were much lower, he’d already eliminated the statewide mask mandate and he knew it would be overridden by the legislature if he didn’t sign it.

“Everything has changed now and yes, in hindsight, I wish that had not become law, but it is the law and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation,” Hutchinson said. 

A lawsuit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court yesterday afternoon on behalf of two mothers seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the enforcement of Act 1002. As of this afternoon, Gov. Hutchinson said he had not read the lawsuit in its entirety and is supportive of lawmakers amending Act 1002. If the courts strike down the law as unconstitutional, Hutchinson said it could lead to counties and cities having different rules for wearing masks, which would be confusing.

“It would be bad for business, it would be bad for the public understanding and our concentration on vaccinations, so I don’t like that direction,” Hutchinson said. “So that’s why it is much preferable for the legislature to remedy the issue.”

Lawmakers will convene for a special session beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday. In addition to considering amending Act 1002, the governor is also asking legislators to discuss the state’s participation in a federal unemployment assistance program that provided an extra $300 a week to applicants.

The governor directed the Division of Workforce Services to end the state’s participation in the program after June 26. An Arkansas judge last week ruled the state did not have the authority to opt out of the program. Although it’s on appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Hutchinson is asking lawmakers “to provide legislative clarification that the intent of the legislature gave authority to opt out of federal optional programs.”

This week’s special session can be livestreamed here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.