FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A landmark decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court has largely shifted responsibility for the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to Republicans in control of the legislature.
Now, after mostly watching from the sidelines as Beshear waged an aggressive response during much of the pandemic, the lawmakers will have to own it.
The shift comes as the virus surges. It means Republican lawmakers, who criticized the governor for what they viewed as overly broad and stringent restrictions on Kentuckians, will decide on mask mandates and vaccine incentives going forward.
Beshear, who is expected to seek re-election in 2023, vowed to stay involved. He raised the possibility of calling a special legislative session to address virus-related issues.
“I’m going to do the very best I can in the framework that’s been provided,” the governor said. “I can still work my tail off every day with the tools that I have to protect people the very best that I can.”
Kentucky set another record Tuesday for virus patients in hospitals and intensive care units and on ventilators. The 4,638 new cases statewide were the fifth-highest daily total of the pandemic, and Beshear said the state is in its “most dangerous time we’ve seen in this pandemic.”
Kentucky has reported at least 7,575 virus-related deaths. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the state’s death count is the 27th highest in the country overall and the 30th highest per capita.
Now Republican lawmakers will bear much of the accountability if those numbers change significantly.
“At a time when the pandemic is hotter than ever, it gets tossed into the lap of the legislature,” said political commentator Al Cross. “They will have to now do more than talk. They will have to make some tough decisions. They’ve had the luxury of taking potshots at Beshear, who has kept them at arm’s length, I think unwisely. But now they have to work together.”
On Monday, Beshear discussed the potential need to reinstate a statewide mask mandate as hospitals and intensive care units fill with COVID patients. The Republican leader of the state Senate quickly declared such a blanket approach would stand a “very limited chance” to win over the legislature’s GOP supermajorities.
The state’s Supreme Court on Saturday gave lawmakers the upper hand when it cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose pandemic restrictions. The justices said a lower court had wrongly blocked the Republican-backed measures.
With the pandemic-related state of emergency ending, Beshear is weighing whether to convene a special legislative session. If he does so, he has the authority to set the agenda. The governor lifted most of his virus-related restrictions in June.
Beshear acknowledges the changing dynamics while pressing the need to consider a new statewide mask mandate as the delta variant adds pressure on beleaguered hospitals. He conceded that a masking requirement now needs legislative approval.
“I’ve been willing to run the ball for these last 18 months and to make those tough calls,” the governor told WKYT-TV. “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.”
State Senate President Robert Stivers downplayed prospects for such a mandate.
“A blanket mask mandate, I think, would have very limited chance,” Stivers said. “Now if you’re talking about something targeted, that might be a little bit different.”
He said GOP lawmakers are ready to present their plan if reconvened by the governor.
“We have been formulating for quite some time things that we think would be effective,” he said Monday. “And if the governor decides to call us into special session, we’ll be prepared to roll those things out. Hopefully we’ll do it in collaboration with the governor’s office.”
Lawmakers might need to take action on things like emergency certifications for out-of-state health care providers and non-traditional instruction days for K-12 schools hit by the virus, Stivers said.
He followed up Tuesday by highlighting a vaccination promotion effort in his native Clay County. It features testimonials from local elected leaders, teachers and other “influencers” to encourage people to get the shots. Similar grassroots efforts can be emulated elsewhere and can be done without legislative action, Stivers said.
The Senate president has stressed that “COVID is very real” and that “we need to do everything we can do” to give people the incentive to get the vaccinations.
Beshear’s office has followed a similar strategy since early in the pandemic, showcasing Kentuckians to promote mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and now vaccines.