Tim Fox, a judge in Pulaski County Circuit issued a preliminary order against the law Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April banned government entities from requiring masks. Two lawsuits were filed to challenge the ban, one from an east Arkansas school district in which more than 900 students and staff are being quarantined due to a coronavirus epidemic.
Fox opposed the measure on multiple grounds. He also rejected the argument that it discriminated against private and public schools.
Fox stated that the law cannot be applied in any way, fashion, or form pending further court action.
Fox issued the ruling hours after lawmakers adjourned a special session that Hutchinson had called to consider rolling back the ban for some schools.
Hutchinson stated that the change was necessary to protect children younger than 12 years old who aren't vaccinated because the state's number of virus cases and hospitalizations has risen.
On Thursday, a House panel rejected two measures that would have permitted some school districts to issue requirements for masks.
There were growing calls for the lifting of the ban before schools open in all 50 states later this month. One of the districts challenging this mandate ban, the Marion School District, said Friday that 949 students and staff have been placed in quarantine since last week's start of classes due to a coronavirus epidemic. According to the district, COVID-19 has been confirmed in 54 students and 11 employees.
"I believe we're going be really regret not taking actions," Democratic Senator Keith Ingram, the chamber’s minority leader, stated. "I hope that the consequences don't prove fatal for this state's children, staff, or teachers."
Health officials and pediatricians have stated that masks are necessary in schools to protect children from the deadly delta variant of the pandemic and Arkansas' low vaccine rate. On Monday, the state reported the largest increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in a single day since the outbreak. The Department of Health said Thursday that only 36 ICU beds were available in the state.
Hutchinson was met with strong opposition by fellow Republicans. They were inundated daily with messages and calls from school opponents to masks.
The Legislature heard repeatedly from opponents of lifting the ban, who cited discredited and false claims about the virus. One example was a woman who claimed COVID-19 didn't exist.
"That's the frustrating thing, is that we're making decisions on data, respecteddata," Democratic Rep. Denise Garner who cosponsored one of the proposals to lift ban.
Hutchinson stated this week that he regrets signing the ban on mask mandates. He told reporters that he regretted doing so, noting that his cases were lower than the state's and that the Legislature could easily have overruled him if he had vetoed it.
According to the Republican sponsor of the mandate ban, he believes the state should focus on other methods to deal with outbreaks in schools such as leave for teachers who are required to quarantine.
Trent Garner, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, stated that "What I don’t want is the false sense of security it seems to be providing because they’re an easy political tool." Let's find the best solutions to this problem in schools. I believe we are woefully inadequate at that.
Friday's session ended with the Senate and the House finalizing the Senate's approval of legislation that would prevent the state from increasing supplemental unemployment insurance payments for 69,000 residents.
A state judge last week ordered Arkansas to resume the payment, ruling that Hutchinson didn't appear to have the authority on his own to cut off the payments. Hutchinson was one of more than twenty GOP governors to end their state's participation in federally funded payments that were due to expire in September.