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. Brian Chilson

The new coronavirus that has now circled the globe and, as of this writing, infected 46 people in Arkansas, was local news first when a female defendant who appeared in Mayflower District Court in February announced she believed she had the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19. The Faulkner County Circuit Court was evacuated and the woman whisked away to a hospital, where it was determined that she was not sick. Instead of a hospital room, the woman, who’d been in court to face misdemeanor drug charges, contracted new charges: contempt of court and filing a false report.

Governor Hutchinson held his first press conference on the state’s preparation for the virus on Feb. 28 and the news has been fast and furious since. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, afflicted by a lack of leadership in the White House, which had dismantled its pandemic response team, was slow to get functioning tests to the states to identify spread. The state Department of Health finally got test kits at the first of March, more than six weeks after the first case was reported in the United States, and began daily updates of how many people had been tested and how many were under house quarantine and being monitored because of travel histories. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences saw its first suspected case at the first of March, but COVID-19 was later ruled out; doctors said the hospital was prepared for eventual patients. The University of Arkansas System also began making plans in case of an outbreak.

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By the second week of March, the state issued a directive to nursing homes not to admit visitors with fever or a travel history, and some began to keep all visitors out. That was the first instance of facility quarantines. Closures of community centers followed. Soon, hand sanitizers began to disappear from stores. The state’s first known case of COVID-19 was reported March 12, in a patient hospitalized at Jefferson Regional Medical Center. As it turned out, the patient had likely been infected at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, officials said.

Quickly, all hell broke loose. Schools were closed in four counties in Central Arkansas because of other infections -— and later Governor Hutchinson closed public schools statewide. All sporting events, both at home and abroad, including NBA and NCAA games, were canceled. Grocery store shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper and cleaning products, and stock of other items, like cat and dog food, began to run low. Museums and libraries closed; colleges and universities sent students home. Theatrical and musical events were canceled. The city closed fitness centers and tennis courts. UAMS began screening individuals for symptoms away from the emergency room. Homeless shelters either quarantined or limited numbers. People began “social distancing,” staying home. Central Arkansas Water restored water to persons who’d been cut off because of nonpayment of bills so they could wash their hands, and put a hold on future turnoffs.

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The governor asked people not to travel if they didn’t have to, and, following CDC guidelines, recommended limiting event attendance to 50. The attorney general warned that price gougers would be prosecuted. The city of Little Rock put in place a curfew of midnight to 5 a.m. and later banned service in restaurant and bars, limiting them to providing delivery and takeout only.

President Trump and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who had floated the idea that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, were finally prevailed upon to change their tunes and suggest that people take safety precautions, though Cotton kept calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus.” Cotton closed his D.C. office.

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In the first two weeks of March, cases rose from one to 22. One of those cases, a patient hospitalized at UAMS, had neither traveled nor come in contact, to the best of their knowledge, with a COVID-19 case, suggesting community spread of the disease. Others have travel histories — including a couple returned from an out-of-state conference — or contact with others infected with the virus.

As of March 19, as additional test kits became available in Arkansas, there were 46 cases of COVID-19 in eight counties, 113 under investigation and 441 people being monitored by the health department and self-quarantined. The number of persons suspected of contracting the virus who’d been tested but found negative was 301. Updated numbers are being provided daily by the health department, both with live press conferences and on its website. 

IN OTHER NEWS 

LR SALES TAX PITCHED  

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Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced a plan to raise $50.5 million a year with a new 1-cent sales tax to take effect after the city’s 3/8-cent sales tax expires. More than a third of the tax would be devoted to overhaul the city’s parks and build an indoor sports complex. The zoo, public safety, infrastructure, early childhood eduction and economic development would also get part of the pie. The city board was to take up the plan in late March or early April, after the Arkansas Times went to press.

Governor announces lean budget

Governor Hutchinson submitted a budget to the state Legislative Council that would increase spending by 1.5 percent, one that will set aside $50 million in surplus. Public schools and general education would get a measly increase of $4 million, or two-tenths of 1 percent. Meanwhile, the governor, legislators and other state officials and judges will get pay raises of 2.5 percent. The legislature has fallen short of the state Supreme Court’s Lake View decision’s adequacy standard for years. It will fall even farther behind if the governor’s budget is adopted. But it doesn’t matter. The Republican-controlled Arkansas Supreme Court isn’t likely to prove itself a friend of the Constitution against a Republican governor and legislature.

Biden roars back 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who’d made poor showings in early Democratic presidential primary and caucus voting, zoomed past the crowded field during voting on Super Tuesday, March 3, outpolling Bernie Sanders in 10 of 14 states that day, including Arkansas, and followed that with nine more primary wins. It appears Biden, who vowed his running mate would be a woman, will prevail as the Democratic nominee to beat President Trump.