Calls have been increasing for mayors and county judges to go where the governor won’t and issue stay-home orders in the coronavirus crisis. You’ve perhaps noticed some people in Arkansas haven’t taken the governor’s encouragement to heart. Also, and significantly, retailers other than grocers remain open.
Little Rock has been a particular hot spot for the sentiment that more should be done. It is in the county with the most positive tests for COVID-19, 130 at last report, and has the highest population in the state (though its density is nothing compared with, say, New York.)
The impediment, even if a mayor was inclined to go farther, is this portion of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s March 20 emergency order.
What does that mean? What is regulation of commerce “against” another place, city, town or county? Would this prohibit regulations that applied only “within” a place, city, etc.?
It’s being taken to mean, and interpreted by the governor to mean, regulation of commerce. Period. So bars and restaurants and gyms and barbershops and salons and tattoo parlors and more could be closed by mayors only after the authority was given by the secretary of health, meaning, effectively, the governor.
But what about curfews that have been enacted in various places? The Benton mayor just issued a stay-home order for minors, effective Monday. They can travel to work or the doctor or obtain necessary supplies or for emergencies. No hanging at the Sonic or the park.
Isn’t this a restriction on commerce, the governor was asked today. No, he said. That’s a “unique issue,” he said, “but it doesn’t block commerce, which is reserved as a power of the state.”
He said he planned to talk Monday with municipal and county officials to be sure they coordinate with the state on their responses. And he promised more news Saturday on stricter state enforcement of social distancing guidelines by law enforcement.
Back to Little Rock. After all, the rule provides that a mayor COULD seek broader power from the secretary of health.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. acknowledged he’d been encouraged to broaden stay-home orders in Little Rock. He wouldn’t give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he’d asked for expanded powers, but he indicated the topic had been broached with the governor directly.
“I’ve been asked to ask that question,” he said. And he said he’d raised the topic for others and himself, “We’ve had conversations around it.” He said the bottom line of multiple conversations with the governors was it’s “not possible for me to do it.”
He emphasized the city had done a great deal. He said it had a modified shelter-in-place policy. “We’re doing all we can with existing authority.”
He added that he was “looking at” strengthening the city’s existing curfew rules, currently 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. for all and during daytime for minors.
Having the mayor on the phone, I also asked a question that others have raised amid city budget cuts. Has he considered scaling back the four-person security detail, with new SUV, that became a feature of mayoral administration in Little Rock for the first time after he was elected mayor?
He said there was a demonstrated need for security, recommended by the police chief, and the detail would continue. “It is what it is,” he said. I relayed a comment I’d received about four security people being present during meetings at City Hall this week when the building is effectively closed to the public.
Scott said he never was accompanied by more than two officers from his security detail. The other two officers present this week were the two police officers routinely assigned to city board meetings.