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Agriculture Commissioner Quarles Calls For Kentucky ‘Reopening Date’

Kyeland Jackson

Republican Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is calling on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to set a firm “reopening” date for the state amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The demand comes as Republican-led states like Tennessee and Florida have almost entirely dropped pandemic-related restrictions and others have set dates when they will reopen further.

It also comes as the virus lingers, vaccination rates have dropped due to lack of demand, and public health experts say the United States won’t achieve herd immunity before this winter, if at all.

But Quarles argues people and businesses should be able to make their own decisions about how to stay safe during the pandemic.

“I think it would be a great day for Kentucky if we announced a reopening day, if we had some common sense about how we deal with this disease moving forward, and that we join other states that have reopened,” Quarles said.

Quarles makes a few different arguments for why Kentucky shouldn’t have coronavirus restrictions anymore: because businesses and people are eager to reopen and some are already ignoring mandates, other states have eased restrictions, and vaccine hesitancy could scuttle Beshear’s plans to reopen once 2.5 million people receive the vaccine.

Quarles points to last week’s Kentucky Derby and the festivities around it as a sign the state is ready to reopen.

“A lot of Kentuckians are not following the guidelines to begin with,” Quarles said. “I decided to go out to dinner Friday night in Louisville, and the capacity restriction was completely ignored. That restaurant was at full capacity.”

More than 51,000 people filed into Churchill Downs in Louisville for last week’s Derby. Though organizers required patrons to wear masks and social distance, the mandates were largely ignored.

On Monday, Louisville health officials expressed worries that there could be a post-Derby spike in coronavirus cases and urged non-vaccinated attendees to get tested.

Beshear initially said he would ease restrictions when 2.5 million Kentuckians get one dose of the coronavirus vaccine (more than 1.8 million have so far), but on Monday said he would consider rolling back some restrictions sooner.

“We are open to relaxing certain restrictions before then and indeed we have,” Beshear said, citing recent changes to travel restrictions, raising capacity at restaurants and businesses to 60%, and relaxing the statewide mask mandate.

Quarles says Kentucky shouldn’t base its reopening plan on how many people are vaccinated.

“People are going to choose to get vaccinated or not vaccinated on their own,” Quarles said.

“To tie the restrictions with a personal decision of whether someone gets vaccinated or not I think does not send a clear message that we’re going to support reopening our state at a set date.”

Quarles is vaccinated and encourages others to get the vaccine, saying it’s “one of the best things we can do to get out of this pandemic.”

But he says getting the vaccine is a “personal choice,” he understands people who are hesitant because of the recent pause of Johnson & Johnson shots, and he doesn’t think vaccination requirements should be allowed

Quarles is in his second term as agriculture commissioner and has been one of Beshear’s chief critics throughout the pandemic. He sued the governor last year for mandates that closed agritourism venues. The Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously ruled Beshear’s orders were legal.

He’s also been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for governor in 2023, though he hasn’t declared yet.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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