OPINION | WOODY BASSETT: Let locals decide

Legislators should embrace school, city public health decisions

Down in Little Rock earlier this year, a non-partisan virus collided with a partisan response. Arkansas lawmakers passed Act 1002, meant to prevent schools and other governmental agencies from requiring masks.

In voting to do so, an overwhelming majority of the state Legislature chose pettiness and political grandstanding over common sense and public health. And it chose state control over local control.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson reluctantly signed Act 1002 into law. To his credit, Hutchinson now admits he wishes he hadn't. He even called a special session of the Legislature hoping legislators would repeal or at least amend a law that a strong majority of Arkansans views as bad public policy and one many think is unconstitutional.

But true to form, extremist legislators doubled-down on irresponsibility. They refused to budge for the greater good. They nonchalantly turned their backs on Arkansas communities, school districts and hospitals.

Arkansas is better than that, or at least it should be.

In the wake of the Legislature's failure, this matter now rests in a court of law where, on behalf of their respective clients, very capable lawyers have sought injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that Act 1002 is constitutionally flawed. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has already issued a temporary restraining order which, at least for now, has allowed school districts and other local governments to decide whether to impose some reasonable masking requirements. Many have already chosen to do so.

Here's what I say to those members of the Legislature who championed and voted for Act 1002: Don't tell my city what it can and cannot do when it comes to protecting the health of its citizens in the midst of the worst and most deadly pandemic in more than a hundred years.

Don't tell my school district what it can and cannot do to keep schools open and better protect the health of schoolchildren, teachers and staff at a time when a menacing and stubborn virus, which poses a far bigger threat to the health of the young than the original covid-19 strain, is sweeping through the state.

Don't tell a university, including the flagship campus of the University of Arkansas situated in my hometown, what it can and cannot do to protect the health of its students, faculty and staff.

Don't cavalierly ignore the current plight of my local hospital where the beds are filled up with covid-infected and other critically ill patients and where exhausted yet still dedicated frontline healthcare workers are tending to those in dire need around the clock.

Legislators who supported Act 1002 should be asked what happened to the bedrock conservative principle that what's best for local communities should be decided by the people who actually live there.

Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant in combination with low vaccination rates, new coronavirus cases as well as hospitalizations and deaths are increasing at an alarming rate. It makes sense for local government, which is closest to the voters and directly accountable to them, to have the primary authority to determine whether any form of a mask mandate should be temporarily imposed and if additional safeguards should be put in place to try to reduce the spread of the virus and lower the risk to the general public.

Our misguided legislators should pay attention to Republican U. S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, who nailed it when he recently said: "When it comes to local conditions, if my hospital is full and my vaccination rate is low and infection rate is going crazy, we should allow local officials to make those decisions best for the community. I think you govern best when you govern closest to the people being governed."

If any Arkansas legislator wants to argue against a mask mandate or other safety protocols designed to protect the health of people, especially during a time when a threatening and out-of-control virus is sweeping through our state, then that legislator ought to leave the cocoon of the State Capitol and make his/her arguments face-to-face in front of the school board or city council in their own hometown. Those are the correct forums for a community to debate and then decide what's best for its citizens.

Rational mask mandates will help us manage our way through the current surge of the virus. But enough people getting vaccinated is our only real ticket out of the pandemic. Recent weeks have shown many additional people have made the decision to be vaccinated. That's encouraging because if you remain unvaccinated, you are putting yourself and others at risk, perhaps more now than ever. Covid-19 vaccinations are safe, effective and readily available. They will likely keep you out of the hospital. They save lives.

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