GOVERNOR HUTCHINSON (file photo) Brian Chilson

Yesterday, during his daily press conference, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson prioritized keeping Dillard’s open during the COVID-19 pandemic while defending his failure to issue a shelter-in-place order. What exactly is the governor’s goal? Saving as many lives as possible? Or saving a regional department store already struggling? As if we need to run out right now and buy Antonio Melani pantsuits, Polo cologne or Lenox dinner plates anyway. 

There are a number of reasons Hutchinson and Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith use to rationalize their lack of action, but their reasoning seems too skewed toward economic health instead of public health. Unfortunately, cuts to social services and other government safety nets in order to provide tax cuts to wealthy Arkansans have hindered the state’s ability to help those in economic peril. No matter how many sporting goods or department stores Hutchinson tries to keep open to try to salvage jobs and the unemployment rate, the damage is done and only going to get worse. The state and federal government waited too long to control the spread of COVID-19 and have failed to provide the economic support needed to workers and families facing crisis after crisis as paychecks have ended, rent is due and the stimulus money may be weeks away.

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There is no playing catch-up with COVID-19. There is no room for a “wait-and-see” approach with this highly contagious virus that may leave 25 percent of infected individuals asymptomatic. Because Arkansas, like much of the country, has not had the widespread testing needed to determine who is out there feeling fine but spreading the virus around, we must stay at home until the tests are available. But the governor has refused to take the action needed to keep more people at home despite calls to do so. State Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville), a retired nurse practitioner and wife and mother to frontline health workers, has repeatedly called on the governor to take a more proactive approach in order to save lives and prevent our health care workers from being overwhelmed.

Hutchinson argues merely encouraging Arkansans to stay home is enough for right now. But no matter how rosy a picture Hutchinson wants to paint, people aren’t staying home. Parks and golf courses are crowded. Folks are out and about shopping for nonessentials. Churches are still holding services. Why? In part because the governor’s messaging has been a hot mess. Sure he sounds calm and focused during his daily briefings, but overall, he has been inconsistent, contradictory and too optimistic in his tone. 

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Back on March 10, Hutchinson encouraged Arkansans to go about their normal routines. Reassuring us the state had plenty of tests. On March 15, he went on Fox News and implied the situation was under control in the counties where the virus was first found in Arkansas and schools would not close statewide. A few days later, Hutchinson closed the schools. As late as March 21, Hutchinson stated in a tweet that “social distancing does not have to mean staying in the home.” Now, he’s pivoted and is asking people to stay in their homes. He’s promoted state parks as a “great place” to do something only to take measures to limit state park attendance a couple of days later. He’s posted photos of himself “social distancing” while he was not social distancing at all. And now he wants to talk about Dillard’s.

I’ve been accused of being too harsh on Hutchinson on social media, but since he limited the power of local mayors, the buck stops with him. For our sake, I hope his approach works. But I’m afraid that the writing is on the wall and Hutchinson will be remembered for what he did not do to save the lives of Arkansans. But, hey, at least we can still head out and buy some Tommy Bahama shirts to make us feel better.

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