Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily coronavirus briefing opened with an emphasis on the positive in the latest unemployment numbers, which put Arkansas’s 10.2 rate 4.5 percentage points below the rest of the country. He also reported that relief money is heading for businesses and the self-employed.
He said restrictions on various businesses are being lifted in May and he was hopeful unemployment numbers will improve during the month. He said he hoped the 102,000 who’ve lost jobs would be put back to work.
Hutchinson announced 8,198 businesses would receive grant money under the Ready for Business grant program for which $147 million has been appropriated. He said the money should begin going out this weekend. They didn’t have a specific breakdown of approval among applications and the amount going out.
The pandemic unemployment assistance program is now directing money to the self-employed and other independent contractors who qualify, Hutchinson said. By noon today, the governor said 7,105 claims “had been paid” and he expected money to be sent to 3,000 more people tonight. He said 60 or more people will work through the weekend to process claims. He again provided assurance that the website was secure after a fix for the discovery last week that personal financial information was readily accessible.
Daily coronavirus count
The number of new cases added to the state tally since midday yesterday rose by 154 (19 in prisons) to 5,612. Hospitalizations fell from 86 to 81. Deaths increased by 3, to 113.
It was another big day in the growth of cases. The number of active cases, 1,470, in Arkansas is now at a new peak but the governor said he took heart from a relatively low percentage of positive tests. The governor noted that there were hot spots within the community cases. For example, he said, three households in Washington County accounted for more than half of 32 new cases. Benton County had 22 new cases. Eight cases in Greene County were linked to a neighborhood cluster in Paragould.
Health Director Nate Smith said efforts to trace the 224 community cases reported yesterday had produced contacts with 137 people. 37 cases were clustered at employment sites and about a quarter were people who’d been exposed to others who’d contracted the virus.
Smith said the elective surgery rules will change further Monday. Even the sickest may be treated now, he said, among other changes. The 72-hour coronavirus test requirement remains, but with exemptions for procedures performed outside a hospital, where there’s no “commingling” with other patients and the procedure doesn’t involve invasion of a body cavity. For example, Smith said outpatient cataract surgery patients will not be required to have a test before the procedure. Testing would still be required for surgical abortion.
Stacy Hurst, who leads the state parks department, announced a list of popular trails around the state that are reopening, including at Petit Jean State Park.
Nate Todd, director of Arkansas Veterans Affairs, said testing had been completed of residents at the Little Rock veterans home and none had tested positive for coronavirus. Testing is scheduled at the Fayetteville home.
The governor was asked again to clarify his position on no-excuse absentee voting. He insisted his position hadn’t changed, though he indicated yesterday he wasn’t prepared to approve it in November. He’d vowed during a televised town hall in April that there WOULD be no-excuse absentee voting in November.
He’s not saying that today. Nor did he say that Thursday, when he also said there was no appetite for mail voting in Arkansas.
He said today, however, that it was too early to decide for November. He said the state needed to wait a “little longer” to see if emergency circumstances will exist then. If that is considered a possibility, a study would be needed on how to manage it, he said. Every day of delay on that decision shortens the time to plan for that management, however.
He defended — and took responsibility for — the refusal of his commerce secretary and ABC director to appear Thursday before a legislative committee. He said the issues would be discussed at a Legislative Council meeting next week. He also said the Commerce Department was working to correct unemployment website problems.
Smith broke down the sites where the 37 workplace results were found: 21 more at Nebo Poultry in Dardanelle, a vaccination operation, for a total of 50 cases, 48 of which are active; 7 at Ozark Poultry Mountain Poultry (location not identified); 5 at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro and 4 at the Cargill Poultry plant in Springdale. Other clusters of cases at congregate sites outside of prisons or nursing homes include 35 at the Belleville Boot Co. in Forrest City, 46 at Tyson plants, 9 at Best Manufacturing in Jonesboro, 9 at Riceland Foods in Jonesboro and 7 at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in DeQueen.
Because concerned readers have contacted the Times wondering what the mask policy is for state employees, we asked the governor today for clarification. He said that state employees are asked to mask when they cannot maintain a six-foot distance from persons they are interacting with. They do not have to masks at their desks or in areas where socials distance may be maintained.
The Department of Health is taking that policy a step farther, by asking people who are 65 and older or who have underlying medical conditions to work from home.