Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order Tuesday requiring all students and staff to wear masks indoors in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
"There is no other option," he said during a press conference. "This is absolutely what we have to do."
The requirement will run for 30 days — with the option to renew it if cases and hospitalizations persist — and will apply to children 2 years old and older in child care, pre-K and children in K-12.
Beshear's order is in line with new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and applies equally to private and public schools alike, Head Start programs and inside school buses.
“This is how we make sure we protect our children,” said Beshear. “But this is also how we make sure that they stay in school.”
The order lists several exceptions for which masks will not be required: exempt from the requirement are children under the age of two; anyone whose mental or physical impairment prevents them from safely wearing a mask; anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing while they're actively communicating as long as it's from six feet away; anyone eating or drinking; anyone giving a speech to an audience if social distancing is possible; anyone in an indoor swimming pool or engaged in exercise while indoors; anyone engaging in an activity where federal or state law prohibits a face covering.
As cases in Kentucky surge from the COVID-19 delta variant to rates that have not been seen since January, Beshear said cases of children becoming sick from the virus and experiencing serious symptoms have also increased.
Because children under the age of 12 cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine yet, quarantine protocols could continue to disrupt in-person learning and, subsequently, parents who need to make it to their jobs.
"We are to the point where we cannot allow our kids to go into these buildings unprotected, unvaccinated and face this delta variant," he said. "We have already seen through what we have shown you that our kids will not stay in school, they will not get in-person learning. We will have massive quarantines and we'll have parents that can't go to work."
The governor recommenced more regular COVID-19 conferences again as infections from the delta variant began to rise, warning that Kentuckians had to get vaccinated, or risk school-aged children — particularly those under 12 — may not be able to return to in-person learning when the school year began.
He spent several weeks encouraging local school districts to choose to implement a mask requirement of their own before announcing his mandate Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Beshear announced Kentucky had 2,500 new COVID-19 cases. The state announced seven deaths from COVID-19. Positivity rates in the state have climbed dramatically for the first time since December and on Tuesday that rate was at 11.05%.
The amount of hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Kentucky has increased 43% in just one week, according to Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Health.
"It took us 21 weeks to get to this point before," said Stack. "We did it in about four weeks this time."
During his presentation, Beshear included a slide quoting Crystal Miller, with the WEDCO District Health Department. In it, Miller said hospitals are beginning to transfer patients from one hospital to another to reduce capacity in hospitals that are already full.
"We had the highest COVID admission rate in one of our local hospitals today that we've seen this entire pandemic," the statement from Miller read. "The COVID unit is full. Our local hospital CEO told me that his day begins and ends with texts from other CEOs around Kentucky asking if there are beds available to transfer patients. This is the most concerning thing that I have been told since the pandemic began."
Stack said that as of Tuesday, 15 hospitals in Kentucky were experiencing staffing shortages that were resulting in issues. He also encouraged Kentuckians who may have elective or non-urgent medical procedures scheduled in the coming weeks to cancel, to relieve pressure on hospitals.
You can read the full executive order below: