Governor Hutchinson’s weekly coronavirus briefing went “virtual” today, available to reporters only by Zoom and to the public on YouTube, because he’d been exposed last week to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. He’s tested negative since.

The governor said his office has been open for six months, though the public hasn’t been admitted to the Capitol. He said employees had kept a distance and worn masks, but a person who attended a meeting in the governor’s conference room last week tested positive. That raised questions about Hutchinson’s exposure, though he said he’d had no close personal contact. He said he had negative antigen and PCR tests on Monday. He said the episode didn’t rise to the need for him to quarantine, but he was limiting public contact out of an abundance of caution.

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A reporter noted that Hutchinson flew around the state yesterday promoting a highway tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. Hutchinson said he had negative results before participating in the news conferences. Hutchinson said he was limiting public availability for several more days out of respect for the comfort level of others. He’ll continue regular testing.

The spread of cases among legislators — Sen. Terry Rice (R-Waldron) and Reps. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) and Stu Smith (R-Batesville) have been added to the list of previously affected lawmakers — prompted cancellation of legislative committee hearings for the remainder of this week. Further information is expected later today.

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The future of the legislative session? Much work is underway for planning, with talk of putting Senate committees in larger House rooms and moving House committees to the bigger rooms in Big Mac. Plans are underway for the public to be able to gather in committee rooms for remote broadcasts. With a COVID-19 peak expected around the time of the session, it’s hard today to say anything is certain.

Sen. Jim Hendren said plans are in the works to allow members to participate remotely in budget hearings so that hearings can resume next week. But he said he and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd agree that the legislature should not suspend operations because of a positive test.

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Shepherd issued a statement:

“Rep. Gray and Rep. Smith informed me they are doing well. I wish them all a speedy
recovery. Leadership and staff are consulting with the Arkansas Department of Health in
regards to contact tracing. I am confident, even with this short break, that we can still
accomplish the work required in advance of the 2021 Regular Session.”

The daily COVID-19 count

Arkansas added 628 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours and 216 probable cases, for a total of 844 in the last 24 hours, for a total for the pandemic of 100,441

Hospitalizations: Rose 24 to 637.

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Deaths: Rose 14 to 1,576.

Testing: 5,439 PCR; 2,429 antigen.

The top counties the last 24 hours for new cases: Pulaski, 62; Washington, 39; Benton, 38; Craighead, 32; Crittenden, 25; Crawford, 21, and Greene, 20.

Other topics and Q&A

Health Director Jose Romero said the continuing rise in cases indicates the mask mandate is not being followed sufficiently. At least 50 percent of the population must follow guidelines to see a decrease in the number of cases, he said.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said districts were making changes so that teachers could avoid having to serve students both in and out of class, a problematic workload.

The governor proclaimed Sunday, Oct. 25 as a day of voluntary prayer for the challenges the state faces.

White House’s weekly coronavirus task force report

The governor does not release it, but the Health Department must under FOI and it can be read here.

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Arkansas ranks 12th, “red zone,” for new cases and 19th, “yellow zone,” for positivity rate. Both numbers increased week-to-week. 28 counties have high enough rates of community spread (designated red or orange) that all but the smallest gatherings should be avoided, the report recommended. (No waiver listed for high school football, but the governor said Arkansas guidelines were sufficient to prevent close gatherings of fans and the guidelines for players have been successful “by and large.”)