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Last Thursday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear ― a Democrat ― became the latest state chief executive to mandate that residents wear facemasks in public to slow the spread of the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Less than 24 hours later, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron ― a Republican ― filed a motion that could block Beshear’s edict.
That sort of legal back-and-forth has become routine over the last four months in Kentucky, where seemingly each coronavirus-related order from Beshear is met immediately with a rejoinder from Cameron that challenges it.
“I’m taking the same steps that you see virtually every governor around the country taking,” Beshear told HuffPost on Tuesday. “But I’m the only governor in the country that’s had the state’s attorney general try to stop the steps that it is going to take to keep us safe.”
The legal battles over what he sees as basic public safety measures that fall well within his authority as governor have exasperated the normally circumspect Beshear, and turned Kentucky into the latest epicenter of the Mask Wars ― the partisan battles over coronavirus-related restrictions that have raged since the start of the pandemic and helped create the nation’s fractured and inadequate response to the spread of COVID-19.
Elected officials nationwide have fought over various measures, including mask mandates and business closures, and faced protests from angry residents suggesting their rights have been unfairly violated since the pandemic began. Governors have faced numerous lawsuits from angry citizens over coronavirus orders. But nowhere else ― not even in the other states where party control of the governor’s mansion and attorney general’s office is split ― has the legal and public wrangling between a governor and attorney general become as intense as it has in the Bluegrass state.
In April, Cameron threatened to sue Beshear over limits on public gatherings, including in-person church services, and later joined a federal lawsuit filed by a church. That same month, he filed a lawsuit over limitations on travel to other states. On July 1, Cameron joined a legal fight over fan attendance at sporting events. On July 9, he hailed a judge’s issuing of a restraining order, sought initially by GOP state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, that preemptively blocked future restrictions from Beshear that would have affected more than 500 businesses in the state’s agri-tourism industry. The next day, Cameron filed a motion asking if the mask mandate violated the restraining order.
Beshear’s aggressive efforts to contain the spread of the virus seems to have paid off: Kentucky had fared better than all but nine other states in its per capita rate of infections as of Tuesday, according to the New York Times tracker.
Cameron, however, has triumphed in the courtroom and touted his perfect record against Beshear in lawsuits as proof of the worthiness of his argument that the governor has repeatedly overstepped his bounds.
We have escalating cases as we speak, and we are seeing what are frankly terrifying outcomes in other states. A mask mandate is absolutely critical for us to not go down that path
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear
Beshear disagreed, arguing that his orders have been legally and constitutionally sound, and that they will prevail if and when the state’s Supreme Court considers them.
But that will take time that Beshear said Kentucky doesn’t have: Despite it’s realtive success up to now, the state reported 576 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, its second-highest daily rate since the pandemic began. And Beshear is worried that the legal wrangling could leave Kentucky vulnerable to the sort of outbreak it avoided this spring but that in recent weeks has hammered Arizona, Florida, Texas and several other states.
“We as a state have done very well thus far because the people of Kentucky have answered the call, but we have escalating cases as we speak and we are seeing what are, frankly, terrifying outcomes in other states,” Beshear said. “Arizona is only one-and-a-half times bigger than us, and you look at the fact that they are now getting freezer trucks because their morgues are running out of space. We cannot let that happen.”
“Having a mask mandate … is absolutely critical for us to not go down that path,” he added, citing the recommendations of Kentucky health commissioner Steve Sack and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who has been sidelined by President Donald Trump over the past two months.
For now, Beshear’s mask order is in effect. A hearing on Cameron’s motion is scheduled to take place Thursday in front of the same judge who issued the restraining order.
Although videos of angry Americans refusing to wear masks have repeatedly gone viral, and small-but-angry protests over masks and other COVID-related restrictions have drawn nationwide attention, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans say they are taking the pandemic seriously and support at least some restrictive measures to contain it.
This week, the Kentucky Democratic Party circulated a poll showing that 69% of Kentuckians approved of Beshear’s handling of the pandemic and 73% supported a statewide mask mandate. Among Republicans, 58% favored the mask requirement, according to the poll.
Those findings largely track with surveys of Americans more broadly: 62% said they supported rules requiring the use of masks in public spaces in a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted in mid-June. Just 28% opposed such rules. There are partisan divides, but only one group ― Republicans who live in rural areas ― showed majority opposition to mask mandates.
More than simply Democrats vs. Republicans, the polarization around masks and coronavirus-related restrictions as a whole appears to have created a dynamic that pits most Americans of both parties on one side against a far smaller group made up almost entirely of GOP voters on the other.
That is the case Beshear and Kentucky Democrats have tried to make to argue that Cameron, Quarles and other state Republican leaders are using lawsuits to play politics with a public health crisis in a way few of their colleagues from other states have.
In a statement last week, the Kentucky Democratic Party accused Cameron, Quarles and the state GOP of “coordinating with partisan judges to put politics above public safety.” The judge who issued the restraining order that preempts Beshear’s future moves, the party noted, had tweeted (and has since deleted) a picture with Quarles, who backed the suit that led to the order, at a campaign event. Another judge who previously struck down a Beshear order that prevented fans from attending events at a racetrack previously served as a county GOP chairman.
Both judges should have recused themselves from the cases, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Ben Self said in the statement, which noted that in Kansas, the GOP attorney general has filed zero lawsuits against the state’s Democratic governor over coronavirus-related restrictions.
On Monday, a northern Kentucky judge upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Beshear’s executive orders limiting certain public gatherings and class sizes at daycare facilities. The judge acknowledged the dangers of COVID-19, but then asserted that Kentuckians’ “innate wisdom and common sense” was enough to keep them safe.
Beshear, who served a single term as Kentucky’s attorney general before winning the governorship, did not mention specific judges in the interview with HuffPost, but did take issue with the substance of their rulings. The restraining order blocking him from future orders, he said, included “no analysis, no facts and no law.” He added, “We feel that the underlying rulings have been wrong.”
Cameron, whose office did not immediately respond to an interview request, called the restraining order “a clear win for the rule of law” in a statement last week.
As attorney general, Beshear repeatedly and successfully filed legal challenges against the then-governor, Republican Matt Bevin. But, Beshear said, his most notable cases were meant to thwart Bevin’s attempts to target public education and overhaul public pension systems, rather than “decisions made in a worldwide health pandemic.”
Beshear won the governorship by defeating Bevin in 2019.
Quarles and Cameron have said that their lawsuits aren’t cynical efforts to limit the power of Kentucky’s only statewide Democratic official. Instead, they’ve said in statements they are trying to protect due process rights and ensure Beshear’s orders follow the letter of the law.
Cameron’s motion seeking to clarify whether the mask mandate was subject to the restraining order “would have been unnecessary” had Beshear consulted with the attorney general’s office or the state Legislature, Cameron said in a statement on Friday. Quarles has said his legal challenges aren’t “political” or “personal,” but “about people who have been deprived of their rights to participate in the policy-making process.”
Beshear said not every decision he makes requires input from the attorney general ― especially as he seeks to protect his state in an emergency.
He also said he regularly consults public health experts and countywide officials who share constitutional authorities similar to his own. And as an example of his willingness to cooperate with Republican officials during the crisis, he cited the bipartisan agreement he struck with GOP Secretary of State Michael Adams to expand mail-in voting and alter election regulations for the state’s June 23 primaries.
On the mask issue, Beshear expressed skepticism about the motivations of Republicans who suggest, as Cameron has, that they support the wearing of such coverings but have concerns about his decision-making process. He noted that GOP lawmakers ― including some who criticized Beshear’s order ― appeared at state Senate hearings this week without masks even after one of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.
“These officials that think that I should confer with them on a mask mandate even today are refusing to wear masks,” Beshear said. “And you can’t have it both ways. You can’t challenge a mask mandate and say you support one.”
“This situation is too big and too important to play politics, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” Beshear continued. “But my job is to push right through that and to do the right thing for the people of Kentucky. And while it’s a distraction, it’s not any more difficult than what every Kentucky family is facing.”
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