Fayetteville officials ask governor, legislators to call session to reconsider ban on mask mandates

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan / File photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

City leaders in Fayetteville are calling on Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, president Pro Tempore of the Senate Jimmy Hickey Jr., and Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepard to call a special session of the Arkansas Legislature to reconsider a new law that prevents schools, municipalities and state agencies from requiring mandatory face coverings designed to protect citizens and students from COVID-19.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan, as well as City Health Officer Marti Sharkey and Board of Health chair Hershey Garner, sent letters to the governor asking him to call state lawmakers together to reconsider Act 1002, a new law sponsored by El Dorado senator Trent Garner, that takes away the ability for the governor, schools, cities or other state agencies to enact mask mandates. The new law was passed earlier this year and then signed by Hutchinson.

With cases increasing rapidly due to the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, hospitals across the state are again reaching capacity levels. And with public schools set to resume in a few weeks, officials are asking the governor for the return of local control and to allow local decision makers to determine the best courses of action to keep students and citizens as safe as possible.

“Unfortunately, our states low vaccination rate combined with the highly transmissible delta variant is resulting in yet another public health crisis throughout our region,” Sharkey and Garner wrote in their letter sent to the governor on Thursday. “We need every public health tool available in order to get this next surge under control, save lives, and ultimately, return to a normal state of being.”

Sharkey and Garner pointed to COVID-19 hospital levels in the region, currently rising back to peak levels not seen since last winter, as a cause for alarm and urgency.

“As of today, our area’s hospitals have 130 COVID patients,” the letter said. “The patients we are caring for now are more acutely ill and requiring more intensive care than previous. During our previous winter surge, our area healthcare systems were caring for 120-140 patients. Currently, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID is doubling every 14 days.”

Another factor, Sharkey and Garner wrote, is the imminent return of students to the University of Arkansas and other local schools.

“In Fayetteville, we are expecting the return of tens of thousands of university students within the coming weeks,” Garner and Sharkey wrote. “Local leaders, including boards of health and city health officers, need to have more tools available to them besides encouraging mask wearing and educating regarding the vaccine. The triple punch of low vaccination rates, the more transmissible delta variant, and the return of students to school without appropriate public health measures in place is going to result in even more deaths than we are currently experiencing.”

Mayor Jordan outlined similar concerns, and expressed frustration over his lack of available measures to help curb the spread of the virus.

“As Mayor, my top priority is to keep my people safe,” Jordan wrote in letter sent to the governor on Thursday. “State legislators have stripped away my ability to do that, and I can’t begin to tell you how difficult is is for me to watch those numbers keep going up, knowing that I can’t do a think about it because new state laws won’t let me.”

The Arkansas Department of Health announced that COVID-19 cases in Arkansas increased by 1,703 on Wednesday, after adding 2,052 new cases on Tuesday.

Hospitalizations were up by 39 on Wednesday, bringing the total number of patients hospitalized in the state to 1,064, the highest number recorded since January. Active cases of the virus are up to 15,801, also the highest number since the mid-winter surge.

Hutchinson is expected to address the possibility of calling a special session at a press conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

» Download Mayor Jordan’s Letter (PDF)

» Download the Board of Health letter (PDF)