Governor Hutchinson opened his daily coronavirus briefing, which included news of a big outbreak of COVID-19 on college campuses, with an unapologetic response to the lawsuit challenging his emergency authority in the pandemic.
He said — though the Health Department is the defendant — the suit is an attack on the governor’s broad executive authority. But he said as he has before, that the “Arkansas General Assembly gives the governor the authority to manage an emergency and act quickly.” He noted that seven of the plaintiffs were on the Legislative Council when it approved the authority for the Health Department and the executive branch to act during an emergency.
The lawsuit contends the General Assembly should control the rules of the Health Department. “I don’t know any of them who are as qualified in public health matters,” he said. Under their argument, they’d be debating and setting rules on high school and college football game attendance or even the chuckwagon races in Clinton.
“That is not how to act quickly during an emergency. Those are executive branch functions based on the authority wisely granted by the General Assembly.”
Hutchinson said he’s accountable to the people. “But when people are dying, you don’t need delay. You need quick action. There is a national emergency and 50 states have declared there is an emergency. … We are acting based on the authority the legislature has given me.”
He said he was “delighted” a majority of the legislature “understands how this works.”
He said the legislature could end the emergency by approving a concurrent resolution. There’s been no movement to do so. He noted that if the emergency declaration was ended “a lot of things go way.” That would mean the end of telemedicine, lawsuit protection for businesses, rules that allow virtual education and many other things from easier notary procedures to rapid licensure of medical personnel. And don’t forget alcohol delivery.
Hutchinson said he respected the “small group of legislators” who filed the suit, but he said the “vast majority” supported his executive power.
He also said it was important that Rep. Dan Sullivan and others, who are raising money to support the lawsuit, “disclose each and every donor contributing.” It’s appropriate transparency for elected officials. I think it’s also an ethical question for legislators to accept payments for a case in which they are named plaintiffs and acting in an official capacity.
The daily COVID-19 count
Arkansas added 969 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, for a total to date of 63,081. Hospitalizations fell by 10 to 425. Deaths rose by 20 to 861 (eight from a nursing home in Mississippi County). Active cases: 5,331.
The top counties with new cases in the last 24 hours: Washington, 211 (81 percent were between ages of 18-24, likely from the University of Arkansas); Pulaski, 90; Benton, 47; Jefferson, 38 (50 percent from people aged 18-24); Sebastian, 36; Saline, 33; Faulkner, 27, and Craighead, 25.
Total tests in the last 24 hours: 7,827. Staying above 10 percent positive.
There were 533 antigen tests in the last 24 hours, of which 59 were positive, so new positives today are over 1,000.
“We have a lot of work to do in Arkansas,” the governor said. He urged care over the weekend. The cases could explode even worse than they already have.
“The universities are driving this forward,” Health Director Jose Romero said. He urged the usual health precautions.
The governor noted that there were limits on what the state can do about behavior off-campus. Labor Day weekend will be critical. “That’s in the hands of those students,” Hutchinson said. “We asking them to act responsibly.”
He was asked if the state was sending a mixed message by urging responsible behavior while keeping bars open and planning for football season. Hutchinson disagreed. He said there are strict guidelines for open businesses. He said fans who attend college football games won’t be at risk if they follow guidelines.
Additionally, Fayetteville police plan to step up enforcement on mask and social distancing this weekend because of widespread reports that the rules aren’t being followed in Dickson Street bars and elsewhere. 40/29 reports.
Other topics and Q&A
Solomon Graves, the state Corrections director, said visitation will resume at prisons next month, after a six-month shutdown to cope with the coronavirus outbreak in the units.
The governor mentioned receiving the CDC letter that said a vaccine could be available Nov. 1 and states should prepare for distribution. “We have to have more information before we know what type of facility is needed,” Hutchinson said. “We stand ready to help, facilitate and expedite when we get more direction.”
The CDC announcement has been viewed as a political ploy to help Donald Trump spread optimism about the pandemic. Hutchinson was asked about the political dimension of the timing. He said he took at face value what Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, said. Romero said he was assured there’d be no lessening of the assurances of the safety of new vaccines.
Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key touted relatively small increases in cases from the resumption of in-person school. Key said some classes at a middle school in Jacksonville and the Earle elementary school will move to virtual schooling because of high numbers of people in quarantine.