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Ky. Ag Commissioner Touts Food Efforts, Criticizes COVID Restrictions Speaking To Local Chamber

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Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Republican Ryan Quarles spoke to the Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce in a virtual breakfast Wednesday highlighting several issues his department is working on including propping up local food sources and farmers, supporting restaurants, and combating food insecurity. He also further criticized COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants and small businesses implemented by Democractic Gov. Andy Beshear. 

Quarles during the virtual forum said restaurants have been decimated by “needless” shutdowns and capacity limits, and mentioned he’s hosting a series of roundtable discussions to hear from restaurants across the state about challenges faced during the pandemic. 

 

Quarles tweeted on Monday that it was “time to reopen Kentucky” and that Beshear “moved his goalposts” on what COVID-19 metrics determined success in fighting the pandemic. He also criticized Beshear’s Monday announcement that set a goal of 70% of Kentuickans receiving a vaccine before several capacity limits for businesses are lifted. 

 

When asked what public health information or guidance is informing his opinion to “reopen” Kentucky, Quarles said he’s basing his opinion on what he’s hearing from restaurant owners and from the public health measures lifted by other states that have loosened restrictions. 

 

“A lot of these rules didn’t get public input to begin with,” Quarles said. “I’m not sitting behind my desk in Frankfort every day. We’re out hitting the road and listening to folks, and I think listening to Kentuckians always gives you better public policy outcomes.” 

 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Beshear said the governor has “moved beyond politics” and acted to save lives during the pandemic. 

 

“It is unfortunate people continue to politicize this pandemic, which has already killed more than 6,200 Kentuckians,” said Sebastian Kitchen, a spokesperson for the governor. “Kentucky is open with all businesses allowed to operate, but with measures in place to protect customers and employees. While other states are seeing the beginning of another surge, the cases in Kentucky dropped for weeks and have now leveled off, which means fewer Kentuckians will be sick, hospitalized and lost in coming weeks because of these measures.”

 

Beshear in his Monday announcement said the goal of having about 70% of Kentuckians gives a “clear goal to hit” for businesses on when restrictions, including physical distancing and curfews for bars and restaurants, will be lifted. Beshear said the state’s mask mandate would remain in place even as capacity limits are lifted. 

 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease and the public face of the federal COVID-19 response, has said about 75% to 85% of Americans will need to get a COVID-19 vaccine to achieve herd immunity, when enough people are immune to the virus to prevent it from spreading in a community. Dr. Fauci also said in mid-March that ending mask mandates is “risky,” even as vaccinations accelerate, and warned against relaxation of COVID-19 public health measures.

 

Kentucky restaurants are currently limited to 60% capacity, along with added social distancing restrictions. 

 

Quarles also highlighted efforts by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to combat food insecurity, saying the department was holding a virtual fundraiser Thursday for the Feeding Kentucky nonprofit. He urged those who had the time to donate to Feeding Kentucky online

 

 

“We will guarantee that money goes towards helping a Kentucky farmer offload their produce, put it into our food banks. And so it helps a local farmer out as well,” Quarles said. 

 

He said there also needs to be more of a commitment to bring broadband to rural Kentucky, and he praised the Kentucky legislature for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars this year to expanding access. Quarles said he’s advocating for even more funding for rural broadband at the federal level as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

 

“We are working with the administration right now, placing an emphasis on including major bucks into rural broadband internet,” Quarles said. “It’s not just about farming. It’s about educating so that kids can learn at home. It’s about Zooming into work, telecommuting.” 

 

This story was updated to include a statement from a spokesperson for Governor Andy Beshear.

 

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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