Governor Hutchinson’s coronavirus update today included good state financial news: The state will end this fiscal year today with $360 million more than had been expected which means full funding of the top category of the revenue stabilization act and it prompted the governor to authorize merit pay raises of 2.2 percent for state employees in the fiscal year beginning Wednesday.
This means the public school fund will have $121 million restored; higher education will get $42 million more, and be fully funded for the coming year, including so-called productivity funding.
The revenue forecast for this year will be revised to $5.624 billion. This will fund most of Category B in the revenue stabilization act. Some $72 million will be restored to the Medicaid trust fund. This will put the balance of the Medicaid fund where it started the year, around $255 million.
The state will also enter the year with $225 million in unallocated reserves, money the General Assembly could spend in January. A long-term reserve fund also holds about $152 million.
He said the sum of financial news is that it’s possible to give a 2.2 percent merit pay increase for state employees.
The daily coronavirus count
The state recorded 520 new cases (at least 18 in prisons) in the last 24 hours, up from 20,257 yesterday to 20,777. Deaths increased by five to a total of 270. Hospitalizations dropped by 10, to 290. There are 6,000 active cases.
Top counties in the daily increase: Washington, 152; Pulaski, 118; Benton, 33; Faulkner, 23; and Yell, 21. Health Director Nate Smith said the Pulaski number includes 30 percent from Wrightsville, likely linked to the state prison unit there.
The 520 cases came during a 24-hour period when the state did 4,048 tests, though the time frame for cases and deaths differ. Overall, the state positive rate is inching up, to 6.8 percent.
Hutchinson commented on Wendy Kelley’s decision to resign as state corrections director. He said he was surprised when she informed him Monday and she’d said personal reasons led to her decision. He spoke warmly of her work and said he’d announce transitional leadership next week.
Nate Smith said plans were being released for large events, but the plans are only as good as compliance. Masks are particularly important inside, he said, and they should cover both the mouth and nose. He urged planning a safe July 4 observance.
Hutchinson was asked if school districts could require students to wear masks. Would the state stop it? He said it would not. He said schools have flexibility for what works for parents and school districts. Little Rock announced today it would require masks on buses but not in class.
Smith said there’s a question about getting children to wear masks. But he said, “They may do better than we expect.” He said questions remain about how readily the virus transmits between children and also between adults and children.
But he also indicated the virus caseload hadn’t dropped enough to give the go-ahead just yet to full-contact sports in the fall, though practice is already underway with some distancing rules in polace.
Hutchinson was asked about dropping rates of coronavirus where states have required masks and experienced dropping disease rates, specifically Illinois and New York. Hutchinson said California has had a different experience and most states aren’t requiring it. He said it’s a better strategy to educate people to use masks. “We’re seeing success in it,” he said.
Hutchinson said he was comfortable with reopening nursing homes to visitors if they met guidelines set by the state. He said most nursing homes will be able to reopen, but a significant number will not because they’ve had a positive test. CDC guidelines call for 28 days without a positive case to reopen and the state now will follow that, he said, “out of an abundance of caution.” This is stricter than originally planned. 59 homes have had at least one case among staff and residents and so they must wait 28 days to reopen.