As COVID-19 surges, Gov. Andy Beshear reluctant to again impose masks. What’s changed?

As COVID-19 cases surged in Kentucky last summer, Gov. Andy Beshear launched a statewide mask mandate that went on for months.

A year later, cases are climbing again as the coronavirus’s aggressive delta variant spreads through Kentucky and other states.

This time, though, Beshear is taking a different tack and holding off on resurrecting those rules.

What’s changed?

Beshear points to the coronavirus vaccines. (So far, just over half of Kentuckians have gotten at least one dose.) But politics may also play a role. Masking has become a politicized issue, and experts say politics generally comes into play when public officials weigh whether to institute mandates.

“We are not taking the potential for a mask mandate off the table, but the circumstances are very different,” the governor said Monday at a press conference. “Vaccines offer a huge amount of protection.”

If hospitals start filling to the brim with COVID-19 patients, he may change course.

“Because could you imagine if people’s failure to get vaccinated filled up every single hospital bed and then somebody had a heart attack and couldn’t get helped?” Beshear asked. “We’re going to make sure that we don’t reach any point like that. But, again, if we just get vaccinated, we can even tear off the masks, go back to our regular lives.”

Beshear and other governors’ decision-making about mask rules are complicated by the whiplash many feel after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people should mask up indoors in high-transmission areas, two months after saying they could safely ditch masks.

“I mean we’re talking about having to do something that was universally believed to be no longer necessary,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“To 60 days later say ‘oops, we need to reinstitute this’ — that’s a very hard pill for people to swallow,” he said, even though the rapid rise of the super-contagious delta variant spurred the change in guidance.

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