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Beshear: Kentucky Legislature Now 'Owns' Pandemic Response

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear says the General Assembly now "owns" the state's pandemic response moving forward. In a Friday briefing, the Democrat sounded a frustrated note over the legislature's move to kick decisions like masking down to the local level.

Noting Kentuckians would be masking indoors if he had the authority, Beshear described the GOP-led body's actions as a "punt," that will hinder the state's response to surging cases and strained hospitals.

"Removing this tool... will cause harm to our people," the governor announced. "The two most effective tools in fighting COVID-19 are vaccines and masks, and now we—I—have to proceed forward with one arm, one of those tools, tied behind my back."

The Democrat warned school districts against doing away with facial coverings in the wake of the new legislation. Those who stick with the requirement, he said, have a shot at making it to the next semester without a major incident.

"I believe that they will make it. It's going to be a challenge, certainly a bigger challenge for JCPS and Fayette County will all the additional busing, the ages of the buildings, (and) the density," the governor said. 

Beshear also zeroed in on several claims made during the session that he described as misinformation —  from accusations that a previous pause on elective medical procedures led to the current nursing shortage to arguments that positive antibody tests should be viewed as equivalent to full vaccination.

Republican lawmakers argued during the session that Kentuckians upset about the current state of the pandemic should direct their complaints to the governor's office.

"There have been no decisions by this body or that body down there," the Manchester Republican said Thursday, referring to the Senate and House. "Only the decisions made on the first floor... that were wrong."

The legislative actions represent a long-simmering rebuke from GOP legislators, who have criticized shutdowns and mandates as heavy-handed. In a floor speech, Republican Senator Ralph Alvarado took Beshear to task for his "daily scolding" of the unvaccinated, suggesting the regular briefings may be partly responsible for resistance to the vaccine.

The new laws hand masking decisions to local officials and businesses, and bar any statewide mask mandate through June 2023.

They also provide some additional help for struggling schools, permitting 20 days of targeted remote learning below the district level and clearing the way for more retired and substitute teachers to help keep staffing levels up. Senate President Robert Stivers responded to State Education Commissioner Jason Glass's criticisms that the measures didn't go far enough.

"Much of the stuff that was in that bill were things suggested by the Department of Education," the leader said. "I find it somewhat disingenuous that the Department of Education says we didn't grant enough flexibility because we submitted these bills to them and it was their ideas."

Democrats, meanwhile, expressed dismay with the end result of the three-day special session, with Sen. Reggie Thomas saying the legislature ultimately fell short.

"This virus has no local control," the Lexington lawmaker said. "And if we don't want to do what we can do here in this state to protect our children... then I just think we really abdicated our responsibility here and shame on us."

Gov. Andy Beshear ordered the session after a state Supreme Court decision delivered more control of the policies to the General Assembly.