FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s Democratic governor on Monday shifted the burden of combating the COVID-19 pandemic to Republican lawmakers after a court cleared the way for limits on his emergency powers.
Actions the GOP-led legislature should strongly consider include reinstituting a statewide mask mandate to combat a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, Gov. Andy Beshear said in an interview with WKYT-TV.
Beshear signaled that he’ll continue his focus on the pandemic but said he no longer has the “same options and flexibility” in the wake of a pivotal ruling by Kentucky’s Supreme Court. The justices on Saturday ordered a lower court to dissolve an injunction that for months had blocked the GOP-backed laws reining in the governor’s emergency powers to respond to the virus outbreak.
Beshear says his actions throughout the pandemic have saved lives. According to the most recent statistics reported by Johns Hopkins University researchers, Kentucky has seen 7,517 COVID-19 related deaths to date, the 27th-highest death rate in the nation and the 30th-highest per capita. The overall rate was lower than some of its neighboring states.
“I’ve been willing to run the ball for these last 18 months and to make those tough calls,” the governor told the Lexington, Kentucky, station. “Moving forward, what the Supreme Court has said is those calls are going to have to be made by the legislature.
“So, my hope is that they will have the courage to do the hard things,” he added. “As our hospitals are filling up, as we’re running out of ICU beds, we’re going to have to strongly consider a statewide mask mandate.”
Beshear said he spoke with legislative leaders on Sunday and had another meeting set for Monday. The governor said he would do “whatever I can to provide all the information and the strong recommendations of where we need to go.”
“The difference now is it’s going to be ultimately on them to be able to say ‘OK, we’re going to move forward with this unpopular or difficult decision,’” Beshear told the station.
House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers said Saturday that lawmakers were ready to work with the governor to deal with “what is a very real public health crisis.” Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
Beshear’s options include potentially calling lawmakers into a special session to confront pandemic-related issues. The Supreme Court’s order will dissolve the pandemic-related state of emergency in Kentucky, his spokeswoman said on Saturday.
Beshear imposed capacity limits and other restrictions during much of the public health crisis to try to stop the virus’s spread. He faced protests, lawsuits and impeachment petitions over his executive actions and was hanged in effigy by armed protesters. Republican lawmakers accused him of a go-it-alone approach to setting COVID policies. Beshear lifted most of his restrictions in June.
Before the court ruling, the governor had been considering renewing the statewide mask mandate if hospitals continued filling up with virus patients.
“We don’t have a tool other than vaccinations and masking that can stop this virus, unless you want to suddenly start impacting capacity or do shutdowns, and I’m absolutely against doing those again,” he told the Lexington station on Monday. “So that leaves us with masking. I very much hope that the state legislature will take a very strong look at it. Doesn’t impact anybody’s liberty.”
One of the contested laws limits the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. Under another measure, businesses and schools have to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from the governor or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They could follow whichever standard is least restrictive.