Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced today that Arkansas would move Monday to Phase 2 statue of reopening of businesses despite the continuing growth of COVID-19 cases in the state.
This will mean that restaurants, bars and indoor venues that have been limited to one-third capacity can begin operating at two-thirds of capacity. The governor noted that the state had already moved into so-called Phase 2 operations in many areas of business.
The order also will mean what Hutchinson called “an increased opportunity” for state employees to return to work in offices rather than at home. He said that might be a gradual process for front-line workers who interact with the public. He said the state might also give some flexibility for telecommuting. But the expectation seems to be that many will return to regular office work
Schools? They remain a work in progress, Hutchinson said. He emphasized the plan for blending classroom with online instruction. Details remain to be worked out on transportation and other issues.
Health Director Nate Smith also said he expected an agreement on easing of rules on dental practice to be worked out shortly.
The move announced today seems likely to defuse a possible conflict in Jonesboro, where Rep. Dan Sullivan had said businesses were ready to move to Phase 2 standards Friday regardless of what state rules might be.
Hutchinson said the state would continue to fight the virus and take it seriously. “We are still in the heart of the woods when it comes to this federal health care emergency,” he said. Indeed, the governor said he’d extend the state of emergency he had declared, otherwise set to expire in mid-June, by 45 days. This emergency declaration has given him extraordinary power over nearly every aspect of life in the state, from schools to health care and state finance and even security decisions.
He said people still need to socially distance and wear masks. He said the recent sharp rise in cases in Washington and Benton Counties was a “concern,” but they would not be left out of the easing of rules. He said he’d concluded statewide standards made more sense, rather than a regional approach.
He said the state will increase testing, contact tracing and public health efforts in the two Northwest Arkansas counties.
The governor prefaced his announcement by laying out a context favorable to his latest decision as well as his original decision not to impose a broad shelter-in-place policy as some states did.
Arkansas took a different path, the governor said. It didn’t wholly shelter in place. But it targeted businesses. On May 4, the state entered the federally suggested Phase One of reopening. Restaurants, gyms, bars, casinos, tattoo parlors, salons and barbers reopened. Indoor and outdoor venues opened and youth activities have also been allowed.
The experience, Hutchinson said, was the same as in many other states. Cases are increasing. But he put that down to increased testing.
He said there’s no evidence of growth rate due to lifting of restrictions. He puts it all down to increased testing. He said the businesses are following guidelines, including reduced capacity.
He said, as if by way of explanation, that “America can’t be tied down.” People want to be on the move.
He said people will stay at home when need be and take precautions when they go out. He noted that scientific guidance is changing as he indicated he was prepared to ignore federal “gating” guidelines to advance to Phase 2, particularly in the steady rising rate of new cases. He doesn’t view them as “sacrosanct.”
Hutchinson rejected the federal guidelines as one-size-fits-all. The trends show different peaks and different timelines for the progression of the virus, he claimed. He continues to insist Arkansas has had a varying experience, with two peaks. But if you remove one big earlier peak tied to Cummins prison, the case experience is a steady upward trend. The count of active cases is similarly heading upward.
But pressed, Hutchinson resisted tying cases to anything but testing and certain specific areas, such as nursing homes and some industrial situations, poultry processors and a shoe factory among others. Smith said workers in such settings can be protected.
Hutchinson brought out his Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe, who draws about $200,000 a year from the state on top of income as a hospital physician, to say the approach was a good one. It’s a great thing for the state,” he said.
And what about Phase 3? The governor said the state needs to take things a step at a time.
Daily coronavirus count
The governor reported a 24-hour rise in coronavirus cases of 288, from 10,080 yesterday to 10,368 today. Deaths increased by four to 165. Hospitalizations rose by eight to 181, another new high.
Top counties: Pulaski with 51, Washington with 44 and Benton County with 37. All other counties had fewer than 20 new cases. Active cases continue steady rise, to more than 3,000.
On a per-capita basis, some rural counties are heavily affected.
Isn’t the increase in hospitalizations a sign of something more than increased testing? Hutchinson wouldn’t say that. He seemed to say that it was just a product of discovering infections. But that’s not the standard for the hospital admission. It’s generally restricted to people who are seriously ill.