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Kentucky GOP Leader Offers Glimpse Of COVID Strategy, Democrats Pounce On 'Pizza' Incentive

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston

The leading Republican in the Kentucky Senate says there’s little appetite for COVID-19-related mandates in the General Assembly, but a variety of more targeted measures might be on the menu. 

Senate President Robert Stivers says statewide orders, like those authorized by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in his comprehensive campaign against COVID-19, are unlikely to gain much purchase in the newly-empowered GOP-led legislature.

"I don't think mandates work very well. They haven't," the Manchester senator told reporters Tuesday. "Encouragement is one thing. Mandating is another."

Instead, Stivers and fellow Republicans signal a coming emphasis on vaccine education campaigns and incentives – with local officials taking the lead in rural counties where lower vaccination rates are driving the latest surge in cases.

As for areas where the legislature might consider action, Stivers pointed to the rules surrounding virtual or non-traditional education. On masks, the senate leader said they may be necessary in particular settings, such as jails.

"We have people there who are in a congregate setting that can't be separated unless they get sick and they're having visitors. We may have to do something there differently," Stivers said. "Those types of situations you have to look at specifically." 

Following a recent Supreme Court ruling handing more policymaking authority to the legislature, Gov. Beshear has said he hopes lawmakers might agree to extend Kentucky’s state of emergency, with restrictions. But in the lead-up to the court decision, Beshear expressed skepticism that the General Assembly could mount the kind of rapid, decisive response demanded by the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Democrats immediately pounced on the initial gestures from the Republican majority, seizing on one item in particular in a Clay County vaccination initiative touted by Stivers.

The plan involves a "media blitz" including 30 pro-vaccine testimonials from local officials and faith leaders, followed by vaccination clinics at 13 sites. Incentives are to include drawings for $250 and lower arena University of Kentucky basketball seats, a wristband, and pizza coupons.

"Senator Stivers and the Republican supermajority had 16 months to come up with a plan to keep Kentuckians safe and today we finally heard the first part of their proposal - free pizza," Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colman Eldridge, urging Republican lawmakers to work with the governor. 

Stivers had pointed to the initiative as the type of step that can be taken without a special session, and potentially localize a message that may have become dominated by Frankfort. The leader said he worries that perception might have desensitized some. 

"They may have thought well, it might not happen to me. Who are the people that are local influencers, instead of it coming from one centralized location," the senate president said.  

The Senate majority met with Beshear Monday, in what Stivers described as a "very informative conversation." The House majority is slated to do the same Wednesday, as all sides discuss what might be feasible via special session. 

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.