Governor Hutchinson today opened vaccination eligibility to all people 16 and older. It and New York were the only states that had not announced a date for this.

He said this will increase demand and perhaps mean some waits for appointments. But he said it was important to get the “life-saving” vaccine into more people as quickly as possible.

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It comes with a steadily increasing supply. He said the Biden administration had said the existing supply to Arkansas was set to increase by 25,000 this week and in each of the succeeding three weeks as part of a 5.4-million increase nationwide.

Also, as expected, he lifted his statewide mask “mandate” but urged people to respect those who chose to continue wearing masks or require them in private businesses.

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He said government employees will continue to be made to wear masks if they can’t socially distance themselves. Local school boards may opt to continue to require masks. Arkansas Corrections facilities will continue to require masks. Also, hospitals and health care providers may decide to require masks, but not as a result of a state mandate.

Cities are free to adopt their own local ordinances, the governor said. Fayetteville and Little Rock have done so in the past. Lifting restrictions meant lifting restrictions on local governments, too, he said. This is somewhat at variance with his past statements that policies uniform across Arkansas. But he said he was reluctant to issue an executive order. He didn’t mention it specifically, but the context is legislative unhappiness about executive orders.

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No word yet on Little Rock plans. The North Little Rock mayor has announced masks will still be required in its city buildings.

The legislature has already moved to make mask-wearing optional. Some legislators are not happy about that. Too bad for them. That’s the good sense of Arkansans, so often cited by Hutchinson, on display.

He said he doubted he’d have to reinstitute a mask mandate because cases are dropping and vaccinations are being given. He wouldn’t speculate on resuming it should cases rebound. He said there was a weariness to the mask “mandate.” I use quotes because it has been unenforced and spottily observed.

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The numbers are good on new cases and related statistics. But Hutchinson urged people not to think the pandemic was over and to get the shots.

The rolling average illustrates the decline in cases.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said each school district must post changes in their safety plans by April 15. Districts must consider all aspects of operation, from buses to classrooms. New rules for quarantine will apply depending on mask-wearing by those who’ve been exposed.

Health Director Jose Romero said more mass clinics are likely and the governor soon will be announcing details on those. He cautioned that end of the mandate “is not a statement we do not need to mandate.” He mentioned rise in cases elsewhere and a need to continue observing CDC guidelines on masks and avoiding crowds.

Hutchinson was asked about CDC fear of another wave from new variants (the UK and California variants have been identified in 17 cases in Arkansas) and a suggestion that mask mandates not be lifted. He said Arkansas people knew the right thing to do. “We know it’s serious. While the mask mandate has been lifted, let’s still be careful.”

Romero said the upswing in cases nationally concerned him. But at this point, Arkansas is “low” and it has met its benchmark. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to turn off my radar for cases.”

THE TRANSGENDER ISSUE

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Hutchinson declined to say what his decision will be on the latest anti-LGBT bill that would prohibit necessary medical services to transgender minors. He said he was talking to people about the issue.

He was pressed on the message being sent to transgender children and if his answers reassured any of them, I’d be surprised.

“They should know we want them to have the counseling and the treatment they need,” he said. He didn’t explain how that could happen if he signs the bill now on his desk that prohibits such care.

He said the medical conscience act doesn’t prohibit treatment and he said it didn’t expect the bill to be used often.  He emphasized the bill covers “services,” not classes of people. Critics have said that’s a distinction without a difference.

He also said the ban on transgender girls in sports “shouldn’t be a sign they’re going to be oppressed in life.” He said “we hope they’ll have the opportunity for recreation,” but he said the bill was a “reasonable restriction for competitive sports and girls.”

Editorial comment: It is not reasonable for transgender girls, governor. They ARE girls.

PS: Here’s an article talking to transgender kids about the war against them by Hutchinson and others.