Kentucky Politics

A Republican lawmaker has filed a bill to ban mask mandates at Kentucky public schools and universities as the coronavirus continues to surge across the state and nation.

The proposal, filed Monday, comes days after the Kentucky Board of Education passed an emergency regulation requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in K-12 schools. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued his own executive order mandating masks in schools last week.

All of Kentucky’s public colleges and universities are requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors and urging people to get vaccinated.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican from Marion and sponsor of the bill, said officials can advocate for masking, but decisions should ultimately be left up to parents.

“If a cogent case is presented, I trust the parents to make a decision that is best for their child,” Bechler said.

Studies show masks significantly reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19, but the discussion over mask-wearing and other attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been riddled with misinformation.

In an interview, Bechler listed several concerns he had about kids wearing masks. He argued masks lead to unsafe carbon dioxide levels in children (a claim that has been debunked by the American Academy of Pediatrics), said fabric masks are ineffective (they are less effective than surgical masks but still provide protection when worn properly) and said he was concerned that kids would “suffer mentally.”

“The reality is: there are all sorts of studies out there, it’s no wonder that people don’t believe what they hear on either side of the issue,” Bechler said.

Bechler said parents who think masks work should not be concerned about infection from children who don’t wear masks.

Public health officials say universal masking, vaccinations and social distancing are the most effective tools to slow the spread of the virus. Children under age 12 still aren’t eligible for the vaccine. 

Bechler’s measure would bar state and local governments from requiring “the wearing of any type of facial covering on any public school premises.”

It would also allow parents to refuse masks on behalf of their kids at childcare centers “without retribution.”

Lawmakers will consider the bill when they return for the annual legislative session in January.

Kentucky is currently experiencing its most rapid rise in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic. On Monday, the state’s positivity rate was 12.4%, the third-highest rate since the beginning of the pandemic, and the number of people in the hospital has been doubling every two weeks.

Beshear’s power to unilaterally issue emergency orders like the school mask mandate is hanging in the balance of a state Supreme Court case.

The Republican-led state legislature passed several laws limiting Beshear’s emergency powers earlier this year, though Beshear sued to block the measures and they are currently on hold while justices deliberate.

A decision in the case could come on Aug. 26, the next scheduled day for the high court to issue rulings.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Beshear said universal masking in schools is a “must.”

“We have always believed, and it’s always been the law, that you have a freedom of speech, but you can’t run into a crowded movie theater and yell ‘fire.’ Your individual liberty ends when it harms other people,” Beshear said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.