LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As day three of the special session ended Friday morning, what remains is brewing controversy over the state’s ban on mask mandates as Arkansas COVID-19 numbers continue to surge.
Representatives in the House affirmed Senate Bill 1 on Friday morning, ending participation in the federally funded unemployment program in relation to COVID-19.
On Thursday, legislators struck down two House bills that would have made changes to Arkansas’s ban on school mask mandates.
Those bills were set to amend Act 1002, which was the law signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that bans state and local mask mandates.
Hutchinson has recently stated that he regrets signing Act 1002 back in April.
“Everything has changed now,” Hutchinson said Tuesday. “And, yes, in hindsight, I wish that it had not become law.”
On Thursday, the Marion School District reported 839 students and 10 staff members are quarantined, with 46 students and 10 staff testing positive for COVID-19.
Gov. Hutchinson made a statement Thursday expressing his disappointment in the bills failing.
“I am disappointed by the actions of the House Public Health Committee today. It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow local school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hutchinson said. “The cases and quarantines at the Marion School District during the last week illustrate the urgency of action. If we are going to have a successful school year, then the local school districts need to have flexibility to protect those that are at risk.”
As these bills have failed to remedy pressures on the local level as schools are set to reopen statewide, The Little Rock School District was joined by the Marion School District on Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging Act 1002.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. also re-imposed a mask mandate on Wednesday in all public places within the city of Little Rock that will last until August 31 despite Act 1002 banning city governments from issuing those mask mandates.
“I don’t see any other options at this point as far as any other piece of legislation,” Rep. Matthew J. Shepherd, Speaker of the House, said. “If there was a strong consensus that developed then certainly I’d be open to that, but right now I don’t see that.”
Shepherd said that his expectation is that the House will adjourn Friday.