LEXINGTON, Ky. — Several state agencies headed by Republicans say they will not enforce Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's mandate for all state workers to resume wearing masks while working inside, a potential sign of how contentious new orders to limit the spread of COVID-19 may become.
Leaders of the Department of Agriculture, Office of the State Treasurer and Legislative Research Commission all said Thursday they will not enforce the new mask mandate, which comes as COVID-19 cases have surged over the past five weeks.
In an email sent to the staff of the Department of Agriculture shortly after Beshear announced the new rule Wednesday, Keith Rogers, the chief of staff for Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, told employees the department would leave it up to staff members to decide if they want to wear a mask.
"KDA will not implement nor enforce Governor Beshear's mandate and will continue to leave it up to KDA employees to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask while at work," Rogers wrote.
Mike Wynn, a spokesman for the Legislative Research Commission, said the legislative branch of government will continue enforcing the mask policy it implemented on May 23, which said vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask.
Treasurer Allison Ball called Beshear's mandate "counterproductive and overbroad."
"The Treasury has a very high rate of vaccination among its employees, and the staff has been extremely responsible both in monitoring their own health and in not placing their fellow employees at undue risk," Ball said. "Therefore, my office will not require masking among Treasury employees."
Auditor Mike Harmon's office will also treat the mandate as optional, according to Harmon's spokesman, Michael Goins.
"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," Goins said.
Goins said staff will be expected to put on a mask if they enter any other state or local government building where masks are required.
Miranda Combs, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Michael Adams, said their office is reviewing whether the order is applicable beyond the governor's office.
Beshear's order comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control changed their guidance around wearing masks earlier this week, suggesting that even vaccinated people wear masks while inside public places in areas with high or substantial transmission levels of the virus. About 85% of Kentucky counties currently fall into those categories.
In comments on Twitter Wednesday evening, Quarles called getting the vaccine "an individual choice" and pointed to experts who think a mask mandate will have a negligible impact on limiting the current spread of COVID-19. He said Kentuckians are getting "whiplash" over whether they should or should not wear a mask.
Beshear said in his Thursday news conference that there isn't much he can do about other constitutional officers deciding not to enforce his order and called it "unfortunate," saying the incidence rate in Franklin County is 15% higher than it was a month ago.
"I care more about my people than my popularity," Beshear said. "I've got the backbone to do what's right for them. I wish others did too."
It is unclear how much new mask restrictions will help stem the spread of the virus. While studies have shown that mask mandates worked earlier in the pandemic, experts question whether they will have a significant impact when vaccinated people are the most likely to comply.
The new CDC guidance comes as more and more businesses and local governments across the country are enforcing vaccine mandates that require people to get vaccinated as a term of employment. On Wednesday, Facebook, Google and Netflix all said they would require their employees to be vaccinated. So has New York state and several colleges and universities, such as Berea College and the University of Indiana.
Beshear said earlier in the pandemic that he had no plans to mandate the vaccine and the General Assembly passed a bill that weakened the state's ability to mandate a vaccine among the general public.
At the Capitol on Wednesday, the day before the order went into place, few people aside from those in the governor's office were wearing masks.
In a statement Wednesday, Auditor Mike Harmon said he disagreed with the mandate because it took away an incentive for people to get vaccinated. Vaccinations have been increasing slightly over recent weeks. At least 35,315 Kentuckians were vaccinated between July 21 and July 28, a 64% increase on the previous week.
Meanwhile, people in their 20s through 40s — the least likely age groups to be vaccinated in Kentucky — are catching the virus at higher rates than others.(c)2021 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.