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It’s time to reopen Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby shows that Kentuckians are ready to get back to normal.

Over the last year, we’ve seen how leaders around the nation have concentrated power in their offices as they’ve struggled to combat the coronavirus. Governors in New York, California, and here in Kentucky have used this power irresponsibly, ignoring their legislatures and, lately, the science on reopening schools and the economy. Our people have seen the coronavirus ravage our communities, the worst unemployment crisis in the nation, and a governor threaten to send police to follow churchgoers who violated his government mandates.

As the Commissioner of Agriculture for Kentucky, I have traveled the state these last few weeks listening to the pain in the voices of restaurant owners and other small business leaders as they have described to me the economic catastrophe they’ve experienced over the last year. One of the hardest-hit industries in the United States has been the restaurant industry, a market for many of our small farmers. Some estimates show that as much as 10 percent of America’s restaurants have closed their doors forever. Unfortunately, for many in Kentucky, their cries have fallen on Governor Beshear’s deaf ears.

While strong, conservative governors like Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Florida’s Ron DeSantis have fully re-opened their states, Governor Beshear is holding Kentucky’s economic engine hostage. He recently announced that he would lift some restrictions (read: not all) if 2.5 million Kentuckians got a COVID-19 vaccine. A recent report from the Lexington Herald-Leader showed it is unlikely Kentucky reaches that goal before the end of June at the current rate of vaccination. Some estimate it could even be August.

That is absolutely unacceptable.

The governor’s response? Grocery stores should provide some free groceries and restaurants and other industries should explore whatever monetary incentives they can offer to get their customers to get the vaccine. You heard that right: his suggestion is for one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic to distribute monetary incentives, like gift cards, to get people vaccinated. As if, they had the money after a year of economic strife! What a bonehead idea.

I’ve been vaccinated, and I tell everyone I know that I think it’s one of the best ways to get things back to normal. But at the end of the day it is a personal choice. And with the recent halting and restarting of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, it’s reasonable to predict there will be more vaccine hesitancy. If Kentucky sees vaccination rates dip lower than our current rates, it’s possible Kentucky will still be closed by the time of California’s reopening date of June 15. Restaurants in New York City will be able to be open at 75 percent capacity starting on May 7th. You read that right – there is more certainty about business in New York and California than there is in Kentucky right now, even with our coronavirus numbers at incredibly low levels.

The longer Kentucky refuses to open up, the longer we will lose jobs and workers to other states. Several restaurant owners have told me that they are experiencing a huge labor shortage as workers have access to pandemic unemployment benefits or they move to states that have already reopened.

It is unrealistic to think that this Governor is going to reopen the state and lift restrictions immediately. That’s why I am challenging the Governor to set a full reopening date to give our people certainty and the ability to plan for a responsible reopening.

At the end of the day, we know more about this virus than we did last year and, thanks to President Trump and Operation Warp Speed, we have unprecedented access to therapeutics and vaccines. I hope we can follow the science and get back to making Kentucky a great place to work and live.

In order to do that, Kentucky should reopen and we should reopen now.

Ryan Quarles serves as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture.

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