Arkansas lawmakers vote to prevent mask mandate’s return

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Arkansas lawmakers on Wednesday voted to prohibit the state from reimposing a mask mandate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a day after Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted the requirement.

The Senate voted 20-9 in favor of the measure prohibiting mandatory face coverings, sending the measure to the House.

The bill advanced a day after Hutchinson, a Republican, lifted the mask mandate he imposed last year. The governor has not ruled out reinstating the mandate, but says it is unlikely.

“What this bill does is make sure we don’t have that happen again, by executive order or by government fiat,” Republican Sen. Trent Garner, the bill’s sponsor, said before the vote.

The measure is the latest pushback Hutchinson has faced from fellow Republicans in the Legislature over the state’s virus rules and his emergency powers. Hutchinson last week vetoed legislation that would have required the state to refund fines collected from some businesses.

Hutchinson also signed into law a measure that expands the Legislature’s power to terminate an emergency and any orders issued under it.

Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker, who voted against the measure, said it was written so broadly that it could be viewed as prohibiting any mask requirements by local governments or private businesses. Hutchinson has said cities can continue requiring masks, and the cities of Fayetteville and Little Rock have said they’ll continue enforcing local mask mandates.

Hutchinson raised similar concerns about the measure.

“The bill is pointless, except it would prohibit private businesses, schools and hospitals from requirements for face coverings,” Hutchinson said in a statement after the vote. “This is not a good idea, and I would veto the bill in its current form.”

Garner said his intent was only to prohibit statewide mandates and said he was willing to amend the measure if necessary to make it more clear.

Arkansas on Wednesday reported 212 new virus case, bringing its total since the pandemic began to 330,398. The state’s active virus cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have died or recovered, fell by 22 to 1,695.

The state’s COVID-19 deaths increased by 10 to 5,626 and its hospitalizations decreased by four to 166.

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