Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been performing a balancing act since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Tuesday was the latest step along that tightrope.
In a newsworthy but unsurprising press conference, the governor announced that vaccinations were now available for anyone age 16-over who wants one, and that the statewide mask mandate was ending.
This was newsworthy because it represented significant policy changes, but it was unsurprising because he had already signaled he would do both. He previously had pledged the mask mandate would end March 31 if certain case thresholds were met, which they were, so he ended it a day early. On Monday, he had told the Arkansas Legislative Council, which is a large legislative oversight committee, that he would make an announcement the next day about the vaccine timeline.
From a public health standpoint, I think he was 2-3 weeks late in making the vaccines available to all adults. Arkansas has received more than 2 million doses while administering more than 1.1 million. One reason for the lag is that many people don’t want to be vaccinated, while many who do haven’t been eligible.
Meanwhile, the governor ended the mask mandate the day after asking the Legislative Council to approve his extension of the emergency for 60 days. It did, but not without debate.
A critic can say it’s a mixed message, but it’s also a balancing act. Arkansans are weary of these mandates and are ready to return to their normal routines, and in fact are doing so. At the same time, the governor knows we’re not out of the woods yet. Nationally, there’s still an average of 1,000 COVID-related deaths a day, so every three days we’re suffering the equivalent of a September 11 attack. Case numbers are increasing in many states and in Europe. What happens elsewhere tends to happen a little later in our rural state.
No one can accuse Hutchinson of failing to take the pandemic seriously. Well, people can and do on Facebook and Twitter, but that’s not reasonable. He’s taken steps that would have been unimaginable 15 months ago: shutting down schools, shutting down businesses, and issuing the unenforceable but signal-sending mask mandate.
He did all of this while listening to public health experts, some of whom, at least elsewhere, preferred more drastic steps. And from strictly a public health standpoint, they may have been right.
But we’re not led by public health experts any more than we’re led by pointy-headed newspaper columnists, thank goodness. We’re led by politicians – for a reason. In a large, diverse, free society, elected officials must balance competing interests, and they must balance what they think should be done with what they believe the public will accept. People need to see their friends and family in person, and they need to make a living. If they can’t and it lasts too long, the wrong policies can reduce deaths during the pandemic but increase them later in many ways.
Meanwhile, legislators are reasserting their prerogatives. The Legislative Council’s vote to continue the emergency was not unanimous. On Wednesday, the day after Hutchinson’s announcement, the Senate voted to end all mask mandates. It’s debatable if it would apply to cities and businesses, and we’ll see if it passes the House, but that’s the kind of thing Hutchinson was trying to forestall.
The governor and his administration have had to balance many considerations throughout this pandemic. He took the steps he took but never issued a stay-at-home order. Schools were closed last spring to protect students, families, and staff. But young people need an education, so schools reopened with students allowed to learn remotely at home.
We’ll see how the governor’s actions Tuesday change things. He says it’s time for personal responsibility while urging Arkansans to be vaccinated. The day after his press conference, most people were wearing masks at the store in Benton where I was grocery shopping. If the case numbers stay where they are or drop, there will be fewer by the end of April.
If the case numbers rise, behaviors may change. Regardless, until this is over, the governor will have to continue his balancing act, one step at a time.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .