FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear defended his mask requirement for state workers Thursday, brushing off criticism by state GOP officials who announced that they would not enforce the mandate in their offices.
“Listen, I care more about my people than my popularity. I got the backbone to do what’s right for them and I wish other people did too,” a clearly irritated Democratic governor told reporters. “At some point you got to do the right thing for your people and not try to score political points.”
Beshear said he isn’t able to take disciplinary action against workers in the Department of Agriculture, the office of the state treasurer, the Legislative Research Commission or the state auditor’s office who don’t wear masks, but he warned that they “face a much higher likelihood that they get COVID and they get really sick” if they don’t.
Beshear issued the order for state workers and visitors to any state building Wednesday, prompted by a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases accelerated by the highly contagious delta variant. The state’s test positivity rate — which had dipped below 2% on July 1 — was 8.29% on Wednesday.
In response to Beshear, three of the four agencies said Thursday they will not enforce the governor’s new mask requirement. Those three are run by Republicans chosen in statewide elections. The fourth agency, the LRC , which is co-chaired by the Senate President and House Speaker in the General Assembly, where the GOP holds substantial majorities in both chambers, also said it would not enforce the rule, media outlets report.
All four agencies have offices in Franklin County, which is an area with “substantial” spread of the virus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county has a daily incidence rate of 17.7 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, up from 1.4 on July 1, according to reports from Kentucky’s Department of Health.
Federal guidance recommends those living in an area of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles fired off a tweet Wednesday evening at the new requirement, proposing that it would “undermine confidence in the vaccine at a time when it is needed most.”
“These decisions are giving Kentuckians whiplash,” said Quarles, who is considered a potential rival to Beshear in his bid for a second term in 2023. “First no mask, then mask. Short term measures turn into long term shutdowns. Our people have Kentucky common sense and are more likely to be persuaded by reason than by threats or mandates,” he added.
The governor’s mandate also will be voluntary at State Auditor Mike Harmon’s office.
“Because the majority of state employees who work regularly in our Frankfort office are vaccinated, and can also social distance in their individual workspaces, masks will be considered optional for employees and visitors to our Frankfort office,” Harmon’s spokesman, Michael Goins, said in a statement.
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.