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Al Cross: Beshear sees his limits; now it’s time for an individual character test and for you to carry the ball

There’s no shortage of subjects for a Kentucky political column: the U.S. Senate race (Mitch McConnell’s got a leg up, and both sides are misleading you), the bipartisan plan for the election (kudos to Secretary of State Michael Adams and Gov. Andy Beshear) or the Republican convention (Donald Trump’s latest TV show, well produced but with too much fiction).

But the most important piece of business in Kentucky right now, and in most of the rest of the country, is what it’s been for almost six months: thwarting the novel coronavirus. It’s a political topic because we must rely on the emergency powers we’ve given our elected leaders to protect us.

The president has largely failed to do that, because he hasn’t tried hard enough, defaulting to the states to avoid blame. Our governor has tried plenty hard, but seems to have reached a limit – or perhaps a political boundary that he’s not willing to cross.

Beshear’s most recent day of reckoning was Monday, when high schools started football practice. He said he was surprised, but would allow them to start games Sept. 11. Unless the Beshear-appointed state school board intervenes, local officials will have to prevent non-socially-distanced crowds of fans who will be talking, chanting and shouting, infecting others unknowingly because they have the virus but not the symptoms of its COVID-19 disease.

Beshear knows the science. He also seems to know the politics.

“It’s not because I think that it is a good decision or a wise decision” to start a high-contact sport like football, he said Monday, expressing surprise at the fall-sports plan of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. “But if we’re going to defeat this virus, we need people, other than me up here, all over Kentucky taking responsibility to make good and wise decisions.”

KHSAA image — click it to go to the plan

Asked why he didn’t use his emergency powers to overturn the plan, he said, “At some point it can’t be every single decision comes to the governor. . . . We also have to keep our regulations and our decisions in a certain area that people are willing to live with.”

Let’s unpack that pithy statement.

Beshear is clearly feeling the burden of the job he rightly assigned himself when he declared a public-health emergency: making life-and-death decisions normally left to other officials or non-officials. He has repeatedly shown frustration with the many Kentuckians who ignore his orders, especially the mask mandate. If 80% to 90% of us followed it, we could all live more normal lives safely, but our compliance is less than it should be because Trump and his media enablers politicized it.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

Beshear issued the mandate as the state began a surge that tripled its level of daily new cases and doubled the infection rate. We’re now on a rough plateau, but still so elevated that he recommended delaying in-person schooling until Sept. 28. That brought a new type of pushback, from school boards and superintendents, who were in part reflecting public opinion.

Many school districts were intimidated into delaying in-person classes, but some went ahead, and Beshear has called out some of the big ones almost daily, noting the number of school-age children testing positive for the virus in counties such as Warren (Bowling Green) and Barren (Glasgow). But he isn’t willing to raise the stakes by stopping football, at least on his own.

The governor apparently thinks that Kentuckians – or enough of them to matter – aren’t willing to live without football. But what about basketball, our state’s civil religion? As he suggested, football and its crowds could make the pandemic so bad that there will be no basketball – and maybe no in-person schooling. The risks are always greater at indoor gatherings during flu season, much less in an accelerated pandemic.

Beshear has often called individual responses to the pandemic a test of character. Now he is posing a collective character test.

The KHSAA plan says schools must work with local health departments, which have “ultimate authority” on attendance; limits capacity to 50 percent, and says families or traveling groups should sit together, six feet from other groups.

The plan says it’s up to the host school to ”manage adherence” to the rules for masks and distancing. That language isn’t strong enough; “enforce compliance” would be better. We can only hope that principals, superintendents and elected school-board and school-council members will accept whatever responsibility they are given. Health departments ultimately answer to the governor, but they can’t manage crowds.

At this writing, on Thursday, it remained to be seen whether Beshear has done a football handoff to local officials or the state school board. But in the larger game of life, death and the coronavirus, it’s past time the rest of us did a better job of helping him carry the ball.

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