In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is facing a two-front war—one against the coronavirus and the other with the state’s GOP attorney general who is fighting back against his emergency efforts to curb infections in the state.
The result has been a fraught mix of politics and public health at a key time in the state’s efforts to thwart the spread of COVID-19.
And some in the state aren’t thrilled with the war of words between the governor and Kentucky’s Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, as others worry that the legal dustup could cause confusion among the public.
“It's regrettable,” said Ohio County Judge Executive David Johnston, a Republican. “I like 'em both. I think they're both trying to serve the people of the county. I regret that there is a back-and-forth. The governor may have gone too far a time or two when it came to churches and that sort of thing, but by and large, he's been good to the local governments.”
Trends show Kentucky is clearly moving in the wrong direction, said Kathleen Winter, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky, and there's no reason to think that's going to reverse without "significant policy changes."
“What the public wants to hear is a unified voice between public health, science and political leaders and government officials," Winter said. “And when that doesn't happen, it really creates a lot of confusion and really now turns into this animosity between sides and having to choose who's right and who's wrong.”
The first-term Kentucky governor, and former state attorney general, wasn’t shy about scorning neighboring Tennessee for what he felt was a lax coronavirus approach in the early days of the crisis back in March, and he embraced a statewide mask order earlier this month as a resurgent coronavirus in the South spiked concerns.
Cameron has readily embraced squaring off with Beshear in the state’s court system in recent weeks over how far the leader can go in a time of crisis. In one legal filing Cameron said he supported the concern in the case that “the Governor’s executive orders are constitutionally suspect and that his actions violate state law.”
Cameron had already been deriding the governor’s use of his power before Beshear made a mask order that took effect earlier this month. The attorney general had previously joined two lower court cases, according to statements from his office, that raised constitutional questions about pandemic-era moves by the governor that impacted agritourism businesses in the state, as well as racetracks and childcare programs.
But Beshear was given a reprieve of sorts last Friday, when the state’s highest court issued a stay that his office touted in a statement “has kept in place all executive orders related to the fight against COVID-19,” pending “a final ruling” from the justices.
The stay came after a pair of lower courts in the state had blocked other directives by the governor and became more timely based off a circuit court that signaled an order would be made would to “enjoin all executive orders entered by the Governor and any actions taken pursuant to his public emergency powers,” according to the state Supreme Court’s directive last Friday.
Cameron had earlier pressed a circuit court to take that approach, according to The Courier Journal.
“We are thankful the Supreme Court issued the order Friday to stop the reckless and dangerous effort by the attorney general to gut those measures, including requiring people to wear face coverings in many public settings and allowing remote instruction for our children,” Beshear’s office said in an email this week.
On Sunday, just two days after the justices allowed the orders to continue for the moment, Kentucky’s new daily case numbers hit a record mark of 979, according to the governor’s office. With that spike in mind, State Rep. Derrick Graham, a Democrat, slammed the attorney general’s actions as “irresponsible.”
“I think what he's showing is he's playing to his base, the base within the Republican party,” he said. “I think that's what he's doing. But the overall citizenry, I believe, and the numbers show it, that the governor's doing the right thing.”
Cameron, who like the governor is also in his first term, has spun his legal opposition to Beshear’s orders on social media as an effort to “protect the rights of Kentuckians.”
“This is not about the Governor’s policies, it’s about making sure he follows the law,” Cameron tweeted last week.
The rule of law argument being made by Cameron is similar to others that have appeared in the south this month, including in the approach of Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp who is taking Atlanta’s Democratic mayor to court over her mask order, as he makes clear that local measures cannot be more restrictive than the ones he orders statewide.
While Beshear, like other governors, has made a slew of orders during the pandemic, his mark order is the most clear cut example of how controversy can follow what experts see as a reasonable public health measure.
Cameron himself has taken a roundabout approach with the governor’s mask order, first going back to a Scott Circuit Court judge on July 10 to see if the public health measure “ follows state law,” given an earlier restraining order on other executive measures, according to a statement at the time from the attorney general’s office.
But in an email to The Daily Beast this week, a spokesperson for the attorney general emphasized that “the lawsuits relate to the process used by the Governor to issue his executive orders and not the policies themselves.”
“The Attorney General engages in recommended health practices for slowing the spread of the coronavirus, such as wearing a mask, and encourages others to do the same,” spokesperson Elizabeth Kuhn said in the email. “In addition to being filed as an executive order, the Governor’s mask mandate was also filed as a regulation, and that regulation has not been challenged.”
Mandating masks has become a frequently fraught political flash point in southern states in recent weeks, with the GOP governors of Arkansas and Alabama ordering face coverings statewide as the virus situations in their respective states spiraled in a grim direction.
But the toll the virus is inflicting on other southern states, like Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia hasn’t moved the Republican leaders of those areas to take the same action.
And Kentucky isn’t the only southern state to see top officials squaring off legally. Late last month, North Carolina’s GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Forest touted his decision to sue the state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over coronavirus restrictions.
As the Kentucky governor remains mired in the legal challenge, whether Beshear has gone too far with his mask order isn’t far from the mind of some local leaders.
In Corbin, mayor Suzie Razmus said most people are complying with the mask mandate, but noted that there are people who “are a little chapped about being told, and question the constitutionality of the mandate.”
“I want my community to wear masks, absolutely,” Razmus, a Republican, said. “I understand why the governor did it, but I don't necessarily support overreach. And this could be overreach.”
And the Ohio County judge executive, also a Republican, made clear that the unknowns of the virus still trouble him. His county wouldn’t tolerate another shutdown, he said, but for now his county’s following the governor’s lead.
“If the mask is a way to keep everything open, I think that it's worth doing,” Johnston said.