Editor’s note: Coming at you from her back porch in Pickles Gap, Julee Jaeger has enough distance from the capital city to help her see the big pictures Little Rock locals can miss. She does not live far enough away to avoid the swelling, swarming crowds that flocked to Arkansas businesses within hours of Governor Hutchinson’s announcement Friday that bars and restaurants are wide open, and that pandemic-related precautions are no longer required.
We just got through to EVERYONE. Your mask saves lives.
It has been a tough year, but the pandemic is much better because of the mask requirements implemented by Governor Hutchinson in summer 2020. He provided the cover for our schools, municipalities, counties and businesses to require masks for the safety of all Arkansans. Within hours of the Hutchinson’s mask requirements, my local city council of Conway passed its own requirement. Real conversations with school administrators about masks started when the governor acted for the safety of Arkansas students. Hutchinson set expectations on masks and eventually the state followed.
For some it took longer. My local Conway Police Department only recently stopped posting group photos of officers without masks. They grew to understand their responsibility to lead on masks and set good examples for students wearing them all day, every day. Others in our community learned to wear masks the hard way after there was an outbreak or death in their house of worship, family gathering, school or workplace. Private business took on the public education and outreach to encourage and eventually require mask use. The mask safety culture protected me personally after a masked worker performed maintenance activities in my home carrying the virus.
Since then, our Conway community has come together to vaccinate educators. On Friday, Feb. 26, all Conway Public Schools staff who wanted the vaccine received their second dose. So many leaders and businesses collaborated to keep our community safe. Other leaders are helping those over 65 navigate the confusing online myChart signup and raising concerns about groups who may not be able to sign up online or get transportation.
We’ve learned so much and created norms about mask wearing and community safety.
All of that hard work is likely erased when Hutchinson repealed almost all of the COVID-19 safety directives. He said, “We will not see a change in behavior.” We are ALREADY seeing a change in behavior. Within hours, some restaurants were back at 100% capacity with pictures on social media. Many are taking this as a signal that the pandemic is over.
When Hutchinson said he thinks the more virulent strains of COVID-19 are already here, most folks already stopped listening. These types of viruses are more transmissible, including B117, a strain related to increased sickness in children.
What’s worse, the governor outlined how we “get out of the pandemic” by eliminating directives, but without setting expectations on upcoming vaccine rollouts. Half of the 1B group of essential workers are unvaccinated and without a plan. The CDC identifies these workers as food and agricultural workers, United States Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers and public transit workers. These folks have been exposed throughout the pandemic and deserve a timeframe. Repealing the COVID-19 safety directives only increases the risk for these unvaccinated frontline workers.
We’ve also got no clue when group 1C will qualify. 1C includes folks aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions and Arkansans who keep our state running in transportation, food service, construction, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety and public health — folks that we need at work healthy every day.
Those not in the priority vaccination tiers include small business owners who rely on Hutchinson to provide cover with these directives and mask mandates. Once gone, many small businesses feel like they cannot implement their own safety measures or protect the health of their families without losing business.
Hutchinson’s actions put kids at the most risk. There are no vaccines for kids under 16. Vaccines for kids under 12 likely will not be available until 2022. Without the state mask mandate, school mask requirements are in jeopardy, especially in our rural schools. Also, my local schools in Conway cannot implement proper social distancing. School leaders have reiterated that Conway High School needs 78 more rooms to properly implement COVID-19 social distancing. We need masks in the community and at school to mitigate the CDC guidelines that our local school cannot implement.
The governor spent so much time and energy implementing the initial requirements. With his reversal on Friday, it is going to be even harder to keep Arkansans safe until all our families are vaccinated in 2022.
Julee Jaeger is a scientist, mom and community organizer living in Pickles Gap, Arkansas. (she/her/y’all).