FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Republican leaders had a duty to promote COVID-19 vaccinations at Kentucky's marquee political event, and their failure to do so showed they put "politics above the very lives of our people," Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday.
GOP speakers at the Fancy Farm picnic last Saturday lambasted Beshear for his now-lifted restrictions on businesses and gatherings to combat the virus. Two Republicans who are expected to compete for Beshear's job in 2023 accused the governor of infringing on individual liberties.
Such arguments "give people excuses" not to do their part and get vaccinated, Beshear told The Associated Press. All the Republican speakers had to do was "take one minute away from their personal ambition" and promote the shots, he said.
The non-election year speeches came as Kentucky faces a surge in COVID-19 cases, leading to increased hospitalizations and concerns the death toll will spike. Beshear on Monday faulted the Republican speakers for what they didn't say at Fancy Farm.
"Anyone with a microphone, having an opportunity to speak to a statewide or regional audience, had an absolute duty to encourage vaccinations," the governor said. "And the failure to do so continues to show putting politics above the very lives of our people."
The speeches at the western Kentucky picnic aired on Kentucky Educational Television. The event is considered a rite of passage for statewide officeholders, who typically face jeers and cheers from a politically divided crowd, but not this year.
Beshear, who intends to seek a second term in 2023, skipped the picnic, ceding the stage to GOP officeholders and turning it into a Republican rally. Speakers included state Auditor Mike Harmon, who has announced his run for governor, and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who is seriously considering the race.
Kentucky's Republican U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, missed the picnic because the Senate was in session working on infrastructure legislation. McConnell consistently urges people to get the COVID-19 shots. Paul, in a social media video posted Sunday, urged people to "resist" government policies for combating the coronavirus.
Just over half of all Kentuckians are vaccinated against COVID-19, Beshear said.
Local health department officials said they set up a mobile vaccination clinic at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday and administered six vaccinations. Graves County -- where the picnic is held -- is in the red zone for COVID-19 cases, signaling a severe level of community spread. Masks were scarce at the picnic's political speaking and at a GOP dinner Friday night that featured former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, who says she's seriously considering a run for governor.
Beshear said Monday that the highly contagious delta variant -- fueling the new surge in virus cases -- poses the "single greatest threat to the lives and the health of Kentuckians, to the education of our children and to our economic rebound."
"It is spreading at least twice as fast as any previous version of COVID-19," he said. "It is deadlier and it is impacting more children."
Kentucky reported 1,301 new COVID-19 cases and seven more virus-related deaths Monday. More than 1,130 virus patients are in Kentucky hospitals, including 331 in intensive care units.
In his Fancy Farm speech, Quarles said the governor responded to the pandemic by "violating our basic rights and individual liberties by becoming the shutdown governor."
Harmon told the crowd: "In 2023, the voters of Kentucky will have a chance to help Andy Beshear in the same way his policies helped many of them -- by sending him home."
What the Republican speakers did with those attacks is "muddy the waters in ways that give people excuses not to get vaccinated," the governor told the AP.
"Our Constitution, our Bill of Rights protects things like freedom of speech, assembly, religion and the press," Beshear said. "It does not give you a right to spread a deadly virus to other people."
Last year, Kentucky's Supreme Court upheld the governor's authority to issue restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain COVID-19. The court is reviewing another case revolving around Republican-backed laws meant to limit those gubernatorial powers.
Quarles has taken the vaccine and has encouraged others to take it, a Quarles spokesperson said Monday.
Harmon, who is fully vaccinated, said Monday he encourages people to get vaccinated, but said it's ultimately a personal choice. Beshear hurt the vaccination push, he said, with a recent requirement that state employees wear masks while working indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
"It's encouraging people who haven't, not to get that vaccine," Harmon said in a phone interview.
Elected Republicans said they would not enforce the requirement in their offices.
After lifting virus-related restrictions in June, the governor was eager to turn his focus to what he portrays as a robust state economic recovery. Beshear crisscrosses Kentucky to tout economic development projects. Despite the virus's resurgence, he predicted Monday that the economy will be the central issue when he's on the ballot again.
"I believe the 2023 race is ultimately going to be about an economic resurgence the likes of which we have never seen," the governor said.