Brian Chilson
NATE SMITH AND GOVERNOR HUTCHINSON: The surgeon general didn’t think Smith was ready enough for business. Smith indicated Gregory Bledsoe was missing the concerns of front-line workers.

Michael Wickline Joseph Flaherty produced a fascinating article in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that illuminates differences in the Hutchinson administration about balancing business and health in responding to the coronavirus crisis.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained messages between Arkansas Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe and Dr. Nate Smith, then the director of the state Health Department and now working for the Centers for Disease Control.

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APOLOGIES: Sorry to Joseph Flaherty for not properly attributing this article originally.

The messages indicate that Bledsoe felt the state shouldn’t go too far in health mandates. Smith had a different view.

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When asked about the central disagreement between him and Smith, Bledsoe said he felt that when mandating restrictions on businesses, health officials needed to be sure they were implementing them “in a very precise way, and that we’re only going so far as we absolutely have to.”

Bledsoe went on:

“Because this is a big deal. I mean, you’re taking away people’s rights to earn money, you’re potentially closing their business for good in some of these small towns, and we don’t know the longterm ramifications of this.”

Smith had written at the time to Bledsoe:

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“Greg, I’m concerned that you are not on the same page as me or the Governor with regard to the goals of our COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.”

Bledsoe invoked a column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that suggested people managing the crisis in other states with strong lockdowns were disconnected from working people.

Smith said Arkansas was never shut down and he took exception to Noonan.

“It is somewhat ironic that an article in the WSJ claims to understand and advocate for the lower classes, since very few of the individuals in those groups read or write articles for WSJ. Noonan’s perspective is very different from the people she is writing about and has collapsed everyone who is not an elite into one homogenous group with a supposedly similar viewpoint on COVID-19 policy. This could not be further from the truth in Arkansas.”

Indeed. Governor Hutchinson has always talked about a “balance” of health and business interests. The state’s response, if anything, has tilted toward the business end of the spectrum, including in the comments of the Walton billionaire who’s headed Hutchinson’s Economic Recovery Task Force. Hutchinson has refused White House suggestions to shut down bars and other activities because of Arkansas’s high virus rate. He’s insisted on school reopening and favored punishing teachers who’ve tried to work remotely because of health risks. Smith, during his tenure, defended the governor’s decisions. He would say the opening of various venues was done with great care and health guidelines.

Bledsoe says he and Smith ironed everything out.

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Perhaps so, but the comments Smith made in their text conversations would have been welcome signs of empathy during one of the governor’s spin-and-grin briefings.

Smith told Bledsoe he had been inundated with requests from businesses to open, but workers on the front line are “desperately afraid.”

Smith told Bledsoe about messages from working people (who have ZERO representatives on the “recovery” task forced). These words should be engraved on tablets and placed strategically at the state Capitol and watering holes where legislators and lobbyists meet.

Their emails are less frequent, less strident and often anonymous.  Since they have considerably less economic and political power than the owners, their voices are more difficult to hear, but there are a lot more of them, they are generally at higher risk than the owners of contracting COVID-19 through their work, they have fewer options if they or their family members become sick, and they have to go back to work once their employers reopen. In Arkansas, this is the real battle line in the class struggle.

Smith mentioned a poultry plant where 27 of 30 workers tested were positive for COVID-19.

“The risk of infection is disproportionately high among those who gain the least economic benefit from this business activity. These are also the people to whom decision-makers are often least sensitive.”

Amen.