COVID policies now up to Kentucky lawmakers: Beshear

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP/WTVQ) — Kentucky’s Democratic governor on Monday shifted the burden of combating the COVID-19 pandemic to Republican lawmakers after a court cleared the way for limits on his emergency powers.

During his afternoon briefing Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear said he has not made any recommendations to lawmakers but noted the GOP-led legislature should strongly consider include reinstituting a statewide mask mandate to combat a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

Beshear signaled that he’ll continue his focus on the pandemic but said he no longer has the “same options and flexibility” in the wake of a pivotal ruling by Kentucky’s Supreme Court.

The justices on Saturday ordered a lower court to dissolve an injunction that for months had blocked the GOP-backed laws reining in the governor’s emergency powers to respond to the virus outbreak.

Noting the court ruling only came two days ago, he said lawmakers aren’t accustomed to having to make policy decisions or weigh all the facts that go into those decisions.

“They need facts,” Beshear said, adding he’s had “productive” conversations with the Republican leadership and is gathering the information they need.

Beshear says his actions throughout the pandemic have saved lives. According to the most recent statistics reported by Johns Hopkins University researchers, Kentucky has seen 7,517 COVID-19 related deaths to date, the 27th-highest death rate in the nation and the 30th-highest per capita. The overall rate was lower than some of its neighboring states.

“I’ve been willing to run the ball for these last 18 months and to make those tough calls,” the governor said during his briefing. “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.”

Beshear said he spoke with legislative leaders on Sunday and had more talks Monday. The governor said he would do “whatever I can to provide all the information and the strong recommendations of where we need to go.”

“The difference now is it’s going to be ultimately on them to be able to say ‘OK, we’re going to move forward with this unpopular or difficult decision.’

“They want data, we’re getting them the data they want and need,” he continued.

House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers said Saturday that lawmakers were ready to work with the governor to deal with “what is a very real public health crisis.” Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.

Beshear’s options include potentially calling lawmakers into a special session to confront pandemic-related issues. The Supreme Court’s order will dissolve the pandemic-related state of emergency in Kentucky, his spokeswoman said on Saturday

But the governor said he wouldn’t do that until he thought the “discussions were to a point where he thought the session could be productive.”

But he noted he thinks the state of emergency for “a number of things” needs to be continued.

The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t actually take effect for a few days while filings and deadlines pass.

Beshear imposed capacity limits and other restrictions during much of the public health crisis to try to stop the virus’s spread. He faced protests, lawsuits and impeachment petitions over his executive actions and was hanged in effigy by armed protesters. Republican lawmakers accused him of a go-it-alone approach to setting COVID policies. Beshear lifted most of his restrictions in June.

Before the court ruling, the governor had been considering renewing the statewide mask mandate if hospitals continued filling up with virus patients.

“I believe the statewide mask mandate is now necessary,” Beshear said during his briefing, but at the same time reiterating the decision belongs to lawmakers.

“As we move forward, this has got to be a process…I hope good decisions will be made and we will do our part to carry them out.”

Similarly, when asked if he was considering requiring state employees to be vaccinated, he said that is a “really big policy decision” that now rests with the Legislature.

But he did say he expected several “national companies” would impose the requirement not that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given final approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

“I see the Legislature making a lot of calls going forward,” the governor continued.

But he added, “If the numbers continue during the next two weeks, I would recommend the mask mandate statewide” as well as some other things he noted, “otherwise we are going to run out of hospital beds and we are going to start losing people to heart attacks and strokes and wrecks because we can’t care for them.”

But Beshear stressed he wasn’t for shutting down businesses or the economy and repeatedly stressed the need for individuals and businesses to make the right decisions about masks, vaccinations and other steps.

One of the contested laws limits the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. Under another measure, businesses and schools have to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from the governor or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They could follow whichever standard is least restrictive.

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