FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday declared his state’s deadly fight against COVID-19 a “success story” as he prepared to end most pandemic restrictions, and said his state lessened the crisis because Kentuckians ultimately put science ahead of politics.
The Democratic governor, who confronted protests, lawsuits and impeachment petitions over his virus-related executive actions, expressed frustration that mask mandates meant to slow the virus' spread became a “question of liberty.” Defeating the coronavirus required the collective efforts of Democrats and Republicans, offering a lesson to move beyond the partisan strife that “can just be toxic,” Beshear said in an interview with The Associated Press, the first in-person interview he's given in more than a year.
Shortly before announcing he was ending capacity restrictions for businesses, Beshear said the pandemic was “a test of our humanity” and posed “the single deadliest threat” of his lifetime. Kentucky's virus-related death toll has surpassed 7,000.
“When you look at our response, I think you see a success story and that’s obviously comparative and based on what could have happened," the governor said.
Kentucky has seen 7,138 COVID-19 related deaths to date, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. That death count is the 27th highest in the country overall and the 32nd highest per capita at 159.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
Beshear said the state's hospitals were never overrun with virus patients, and the rollout of vaccinations was “pretty successful,” with more than 2 million Kentuckians vaccinated.
The first-term governor spoke in personal terms about the difficulties of leading the state through the public health crisis and the heartache and losses it caused.
“I’m the guy that has to try to lay my head down every night and sleep knowing that Kentuckians that we’ve lost, the grief that’s out there, the fact that so many couldn’t say goodbye and be at that bedside,” he said. "That we had thousands of Kentuckians die alone or with a nurse holding their hands. And so that perspective, each and every day, I never looked at any of this in any of the red or the blue discussion, and the rest of the country shouldn’t either.”
Beshear has faced steady criticism and occasional protests over his actions. Armed protesters gathered near the governor’s home last year and then hanged Beshear in effigy in a tree near the state Capitol. The event was billed as a rally in defense of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, but turned into a protest against the governor’s virus restrictions.
Earlier this year, Beshear pointed to a man in a social media video that warned the governor risked being struck down by God unless he rescinded a COVID-19 order from applying to churches. The video showed a gun behind the man.
Beshear faced petitions this year seeking his impeachment. A Republican-led legislative panel recommended that the governor not face removal from office and the matter died after that.
As he prepared to largely lift the state's mask mandate, Beshear vented his frustration with the divisions over donning a facial covering.
“Masks have been used to reduce infection in health care settings for decades," he said. "Yet somehow it became a question of liberty. Again, I think this is a test of humanity and whether you’re willing to be selfless and protect other people or selfish. And wearing a mask is a pretty small thing if it means somebody else is alive and can be at that next holiday with their family.”
Beshear became a fixture on statewide TV for more than a year, with press conferences where he announced the daily toll the pandemic had taken on Kentuckians. The governor said Friday that his decisions were guided by science, even when it incurred a backlash.
“To me, this wasn’t a red or a blue issue, it was a life and death issue," he said. "And I think every day through more than 250 press conferences over, what about 470 days from our first one to today, it was about the information, it was about the science and it was about our families.”
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press