“Facts change”: Arkansas governor explains reversal on mask mandate ban

Washington — Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said Sunday he changed his mind about a bill he signed in April to ban mask mandates across the state because “facts change,” and admitted that signing it at a time when COVID-19 cases were low in his state was “an error.”

“Facts change and leaders have to adjust to the new facts that you have and the reality of what you have to deal with,” the Republican governor said on “Face the Nation.” “I realized that we needed to have more options for our local school districts to protect those children. And so I asked the legislature to redo the law that prohibited those requirements or those options for the school districts to protect the children. And so it was an error to sign that law.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and with the Delta variant on the rise and schools soon to reopen in the fall, Hutchinson said he wanted to give school districts the flexibility to decide whether to require masks or not. On Friday, an Arkansas judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the ban after the state lawmakers left it in place despite Hutchinson’s call for them to reverse the law. 

In Arkansas’ Marion School District, nearly 900 students and teachers are currently in quarantine. Hutchinson said he believes if more people were vaccinated that number wouldn’t be so high, and that the district is an example of why schools need the option to require mask wearing.

“Ordinarily you have about 2.5 contacts from one exposure that has to be quarantined. But in the school environment, it was more like 18 to one. And so that’s why we had so many that were quarantined,” Hutchinson said. “You can’t have a successful school year with that kind of exposure in the school. And so vaccines, as well as flexibility of the local school district, would be the key.”

Unvaccinated children aren’t the only ones at risk of catching COVID-19 from the Delta variant. Hutchinson said because the Delta variant is so transmissible, it’s affecting “every population” in his state.

“We’re seeing 40-year-olds in the hospital and on vents and then it goes down,” Hutchinson said. “And while the children are less susceptible to it and have less at risk, still a small number of children find themselves in the hospital. We’ve had over 24 in our children’s hospital. We’ve had three adolescents die.”

There have been improvements on the number of Arkansas residents getting the vaccine. In June, the state was 46th in the nation for the number of people with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Now, Arkansas is the 38th, with 60% of Arkansans with at least one dose. Hutchinson said he plans to continue to engage in “community conversations” to increase the vaccination rate in his state.

The governor said another way to make the COVID-19 vaccine more “broadly accepted” is for the Food and Drug Administration to grant them final approval. While he said this would not convince him to support vaccine mandates in Arkansas, Hutchinson called on the Biden administration to take this action to encourage more Americans to get vaccinated.