LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — In March, with the number of new coronavirus cases plummeting in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson let expire the statewide mask mandate that some of his fellow Republicans had opposed from the beginning.
Soon thereafter, Mr. Hutchinson went a step further, signing legislation that blocked most government entities in the state from instituting any future mask mandates.
The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Trent Garner, would later write on Twitter that it was “one of the most important laws we passed.”
“The left wants more control over YOU and your children’s lives,” he continued. “Masking is now about power, not public safety.”
Mr. Hutchinson, a relatively moderate Republican, did not see much harm in it at the time. “Our cases were at a very low point,” he recalled in a news conference on Tuesday. However, he added, “In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law.”
In recent days, as coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant have skyrocketed in Arkansas, Mr. Hutchinson has backtracked, and is now urging state legislators to undo part of the law so school districts may adopt mask mandates before students return to their classrooms en masse.
In so doing, he has incensed the most conservative members of his base, underscoring a broader dilemma facing Republican governors across the South, where new coronavirus infections are once again spiking, but where hard-line conservatives remain adamant that many regulations seeking to contain the spread of the virus are a threat to personal freedom.
In South Carolina, which has banned school mask mandates, Gov. Henry McMaster said students “can’t learn” while wearing face coverings. In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves has said he will not issue a mask mandate for schools. In Florida on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis also renewed a vow not to impose a mask mandate or business restrictions, despite worrying caseloads. “We are not shutting down,” he said at a news conference. “We are going to have schools open. We are protecting every Floridian’s job in this state.”
In Arkansas, the drama in the seat of government unfolded as Tyson Foods, the meat processing giant and one of Arkansas’s signature employers, said on Tuesday that it would require vaccines for its U.S. workers. About half of Tyson’s U.S. employees remain unvaccinated, and the company is offering $200 payments to frontline workers who can show proof of vaccination.
Mr. Hutchinson, a term-limited, second-term governor who many think has an eye on higher office, called a special session of the Republican-controlled legislature that is expected to meet on Wednesday to consider his proposal allowing school districts to set their own mask mandates.
But on Tuesday, he indicated that its chances of passage were dim. “It’s clear to me that there’s many that just don’t want this in their lap,” he said. “It’s clear to me that some school superintendents don’t want it either.”
“We may or may not get there,” he added.
The stakes in Arkansas are high. About 58 percent of Arkansas adults have had at least one vaccine shot, the 11th-lowest rate in the nation, while the rate of new cases in the past seven days is 63 per 100,000 residents, the third-highest in the United States, behind Louisiana and Florida, according to data from The New York Times. Three other Southern states — Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina — are also in the top 10 for per capita new cases.
Arkansas officials reported on Monday that 81 coronavirus-infected patients had been newly hospitalized, the largest one-day increase of the pandemic, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. At his Tuesday news conference, Mr. Hutchinson reported a big surge in the number of administered vaccines in the last 24-hour reporting period. He also reported that 30 more people had been hospitalized, placing a growing strain on intensive care units and ventilators. The unvaccinated have made up a vast majority of the sick and dead in recent months.
Aug. 3, 2021, 9:15 p.m. ET
José R. Romero, the state health secretary, spoke of the “sobering” reality for children, and for schools: As of Aug. 1, he said, nearly 19 percent of the state’s active cases were in children under 18. More than half of them, he said, were children who are under 12 and thus ineligible for the vaccines.
“We do have a vulnerable group that is not eligible for the vaccine,” Mr. Hutchinson said. His proposal, he said, would “give local school districts the flexibility to add protection for children under 12.”
Public health experts support the use of masks in certain settings to shield people from the virus and slow the pandemic.
But the grass-roots opposition was evident on Monday at Arkansas’s handsome limestone State Capitol building, where scores of conservatives gathered on the steps to protest the proposed change amid a sea of American flags, homemade anti-mask signs and Trump paraphernalia.
“Masks are dumb!” a 10-year-old girl named Samantha told the cheering crowd. In an interview after the rally, Courtney Roldan, the mother of a third-grade student from Cabot, said masks were “not protecting our kids from anything.”
Another attendee, Brian Hinson, an unvaccinated retiree from Central Arkansas, declared the vaccination effort Mr. Hutchinson has championed to be “Nazi crap.”
Around the time the Arkansas law banning mask mandates was approved, some health experts had warned that it could tie the hands of local governments in the event of a new pandemic surge. In an interview this week, State Senator Keith Ingram, the minority leader, said it was a mistake for the governor to sign it. But he and other Democrats said that before that moment, Mr. Hutchinson had competently steered the state through the first wave of the pandemic.
Mr. Ingram suspected that a political calculation underpinned the governor’s decision to sign the bill. Mr. Hutchinson, 70, has previously served as a federal prosecutor, member of Congress and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and he was recently elected chairman of the National Governors Association. He appears to be trying to remain in good standing with the right-moving Republican base even while emerging as a critic of former President Donald J. Trump.
“I think he was trying to walk that fine line between doing what he felt was right and doing what, politically, he had to do with an irksome legislature,” Mr. Ingram said.
Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
Mr. Hutchinson has also portrayed himself as a leader guided by science and common sense during the pandemic, and in recent weeks he has held events across the state in an effort to convince vaccine skeptics to get the shot. The reaction has often been hostile.
At a town hall-style meeting in Siloam Springs, they shouted “liar” at him. At another, in Mountain Home, protesters hoisted signs declaring “My body, my choice” and “Say no to mandated jabs,” even though Mr. Hutchinson signed a law in the spring outlawing vaccine mandates.
Some school officials are hoping Mr. Hutchinson will somehow score a win this week in the legislature. Glen Fenter is the superintendent in the Marion School District, which started classes on July 26. He said that seven students and three staff members were found to have Covid-19 last week, forcing 168 people to quarantine. On Monday, he said, 18 more people tested positive.
“If we simply were wearing masks in the way we did during the first wave of the pandemic, all of this could be contained while we are increasing our rate of vaccination,” Dr. Fenter said.
Two parents of Little Rock-area schoolchildren, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of the ban on mask mandates, calling it “an irrational act of legislative madness that threatens K-12 public school children with irreparable harm.”
Mike Poore, the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, said on Monday that officials there might file a separate suit if the law was not changed.
“Hey, I love what Governor Hutchinson’s been trying to do,” Mr. Poore said. But if he is not successful in changing the law, Mr. Poore said, the courts may be the only way “to make sure that we try everything we can to support and protect our staff and students.”