As cases surge, Gov. Andy Beshear unveils new coronavirus restrictions for Kentucky
Gov. Andy Beshear raised the stakes in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, announcing an array of new restrictions that will extend from school classrooms to bars and restaurants across the state.
Citing mounting evidence of more deaths and illness devastating all corners of Kentucky, Beshear said the latest mandates are needed because "inaction is deadly."
"Pretending this virus isn't real is not an option," the governor said. "It's time to do what it takes to finish this fight."
The moves drew swift criticism from Republican leaders who have vowed to rein in Beshear with new legislation in early 2021 to limit the governor's powers.
This follows a legal victory for Beshear. The state Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously the governor is within his constitutional authority to use executive orders during a public health emergency.
Among the latest orders:
- All public and private K-12 schools will close to in-person instruction starting Monday through the end of the semester. The only exception is for elementary schools in counties outside the "red zone," which may reopen Dec. 7 if the school follows all guidelines.
Beginning Friday and lasting until Dec. 13:
- All restaurants and bars will close to indoor dining services. Outdoor dining is still allowed, with some limitations.
- Gyms are limited to 33% capacity, and no group classes or indoor games are allowed. Masks are required.
- Indoor gatherings should be limited to two families, not exceeding a total of eight people.
- Attendance at weddings and funerals is limited to 25 people.
- Professional services should have employees work from home when possible and limit their offices to 33% capacity.
Beshear also announced a $40 million fund to provide assistance to qualifying restaurants and bars impacted by the dining room closures.
La Tasha Buckner, the governor's chief of staff, said businesses will be eligible for $10,000 in assistance. Those with more than one location will be eligible for a maximum of $20,000.
Businesses owned by a publicly traded company or with drive-thru operations that generate 50% of their sales will not be eligible, Buckner said.
"We really want to make sure that we target the mom and pop individual business owners out there who may be suffering from the largest impact," she said.
The new restrictions arrive as Kentucky's coronavirus case counts surge dramatically and as deaths from COVID-19 have hit record levels this month.
Beshear announced 2,753 new virus cases and 15 deaths Wednesday, including a 15-year-old girl from Ballard County.
"Our top five highest days ever in this virus of positive cases have all been in the last week," Beshear said. "As Dr. (Steven) Stack showed you yesterday, we are in the midst of exponential growth."
The state's positivity rate reached 9.12% Wednesday, an increase the governor called "alarming" because of widespread testing available across the state.
Beshear has insisted that measures taken so far haven't curbed rising infection rates, levels that eventually could overwhelm hospitals and care centers across the state.
During his virtual update from Frankfort, Beshear said "there will not be a shutdown" in what he described as Kentucky's counterattack against the pandemic's third wave.
"We're also not restricting retail any further, but that is based on a commitment to re-up the mask mandate, and the enforcement of it, because we need every Kentuckian to do their part," Beshear said.
At least 106 of the state's 120 counties are now in the red zone, and preliminary modeling predicts at the current rate of exponential growth, far more Kentuckians could die between now and March than the nearly 1,700 who have died since spring.
Beshear said anyone who doubts the need for new measures isn’t paying attention. “If you open your eyes and your ears and your heart, you will see the level of suffering that’s out there,” he said.
At times during the past week, Beshear has lashed out at critics, primarily lawmakers, who have questioned the need for restrictions and the evidence that supports targeting restaurants and taverns.
On Wednesday, when questioned about why restaurants top the list for new restrictions, he cited one health district that has documented 36 "clusters" of virus cases linked back to eateries.
Experts at Johns Hopkins University and the White House Coronavirus Task Force have underscored the risks stemming from people sitting down and eating together with masks off, he said.
Beshear appeared to anticipate a storm of criticism in saying that "none of these decisions are easy. I can tell you, none of them are going to be popular.”
Latest numbers:Beshear announces 2,753 new cases, 15 deaths Wednesday
Social media exploded with comments blasting Beshear.
Republican House Speaker David Osborne issued a statement criticizing Beshear for once again not consulting with legislative leaders ahead of making his COVID-19 orders. The governor held a call just before his briefing to inform legislators of the steps he was taking.
“While we take this virus seriously, we will not be cover for his unilateral decision-making,” Osborne said. “Working with the legislature means more than calling us an hour before making his pre-determined edicts public. This kind of move is not leadership, it’s misleading.”
Osborne added that Beshear did not seek any input from legislative leaders, instead giving them a 20-minute presentation from Stack, the state's public health commissioner, and less than 10 minutes of questions, in which he “failed to provide any contact tracing-based data on where cases are spreading in Kentucky.”
State Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles wrote on Twitter: "For all the 'this is not a shutdown' talk we just heard from Governor Beshear, make no mistake: this is a shutdown. Our restaurants, students, and workers have been thrown into a long dark winter. I sure hope agriculture is exempt from the Governor's restrictions. We must be able to feed our country."
State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer predicted in a text to USA TODAY that the latest "draconian measures" by Beshear "will do further damage to our economy and schoolchildren."
"Apparently with Gov. Beshear, it's 'his way or the highway:' no questions, no criticisms, no suggestions allowed. I'm weary of his failed leadership, as are many Kentuckians," Thayer wrote, adding that "his arbitrary rules will continue to bring harm to citizens everywhere and is an affront to the concept of co-equal branches of government."
He vowed that the legislature "will speak loudly" about this governor and his authoritarian policies. "Hang on, Kentucky, help is on the way," Thayer wrote.
Kentucky League of Cities Executive Director and Chief Executive J.D. Chaney said his organization and the Kentucky Association of Counties weren’t consulted on Beshear’s new steps.
“I do think local officials have a lot to add to that collaborative process and we probably would have preferred to have been a little more engaged,” Chaney said. “I think city officials by and large have been through this before, and I think they'll attempt to comply and encourage the businesses and individuals in their communities to remain compliant.”
The Kentucky Democratic Party's new chairman, Colmon Elridge, issued a statement in support of the measures. Beshear's administration is refusing to “wave the white flag to COVID-19,” he said.
The KDP’s Twitter account further criticized Osborne’s statement as “just more political grandstanding.”
“The time for that is over, as every minute so-called leaders spend spreading false information and fighting Gov. Beshear is a minute we are losing to COVID-19,” the KDP account tweeted.
Beshear isn't an outlier in renewing the clampdown. Other states and large cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, have rushed recently to impose new restrictions amid an explosion of new virus cases and deaths.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a statewide business curfew that runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. And North Dakota imposed its first mask mandate after seeing a huge surge in positive cases and deaths.