Coronavirus Roundup ... As Arkansas cancels activities for now, Gov. Hutchinson crosses state to keep coronavirus spread at bay
March 23-29, 2020
By Daily Record Staff
As Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for the closure of Arkansas’ three casinos for two weeks to key large crowds at bay, the Arkansas Legislature and most government offices are shutting down for the foreseeable future as the state takes steps to mitigate the economic and social impact of the spread of the coronavirus.
In a news conference held on Tuesday (March 17) at the West Memphis Community College, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he and Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith and other top cabinet officials met with medical, education, economic development and public health leaders in eastern Arkansas to discuss issue related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Arkansas.
Although there were no known widespread cases in northeast part of the state, Hutchinson said the state is still in need of more testing equipment. He also thanked healthcare workers across the state for their work since the first positive coronavirus case and Hutchinson state of emergency declaration on March 11.
“They are on the frontline, they are working extra duty and they have home responsibilities as well, and they have many other challenges, yet they are fulfilling their responsibilities and have gone beyond that with a heart of compassion for everyone that they deal with and I want to personally thank them,” said Hutchinson.
And while the number of positive coronavirus cases have grown to more than 30, Hutchinson said most are tied to out-of-state travel ahead of the spring break period in the coming weeks. The governor also said that COVID-19 testing in Arkansas is expected to ramp up over the next seven days as more medical equipment arrives at commercial labs, hospitals and state health officials.
“What we will see in the coming weeks … is a significant increase in the number of tests and the report of those tests coming back,” said Hutchinson. “Our strategy is simply to be ahead of the curve and to mitigate while we don’t have significant community spread in Arkansas,” continued Hutchinson. “And if we start the mitigation process early – that is limiting crowd sizes and closing schools for two weeks – these strategies will allow us to go about life and business in Arkansas but at the same time mitigate community spread of the coronavirus.”
Hutchinson added that Arkansas has also received new federal guidelines from the U.S. Center for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending that all communities across the U.S. cancel any events with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
“This is something that we have been prepared for, but we have to adjust to this new normal,” said the popular Republican governor.
In speaking on the economic impact, Hutchinson said he has asked the three casinos in Crittenden, Garland and Jefferson counties to shutter their doors for two weeks in line with the state’s moratorium on crowd size. In other areas, Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston announced that the state was waiving the work requirement for unemployment assistance and is studying other ways to aid the business community.
State Education Secretary Johnny Key also gave an update on the state’s plan to close all schools for two weeks, beginning on Tuesday, March 17 through March 30. Key said most schools are also working to provide meals for student during that period.
Legislature reviews contingency for upcoming Fiscal Session in April
Meanwhile, as Hutchinson is crossing the state daily with cabinet chiefs to meet with community and health officials statewide, Arkansas House and Senate leaders at the State Capitol on Monday (March 16) agreed to cancel ongoing joint legislation and committee meetings schedule for March 18 and 19. Those meetings were schedule to consider plans for the upcoming Fiscal Session to begin April 8.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R- El Dorado, and Senate President Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said they have agreed to cancel the upcoming Arkansas Legislative Council (ALC) meeting and all ALC subcommittee meetings due to the latest state and federal guidance regard COVID-19.
Instead, the Executive Subcommittee of ALC may likely adopt an emergency rule under state law that allows the co-chairs of ALC and the co-chairs of the affected subcommittees to consider and approve any urgent matters.
“These actions will be reported to the full Arkansas Legislative Council at its next regularly scheduled meeting,” Shepherd, Hendren and other legislative leaders said in a statement. “House and Senate leadership continue to review contingency plans for the Fiscal Session scheduled to begin April 8.”
In the past, fiscal sessions have been held on the second Monday in February on even-numbered years. However, under Act 545 passed by the legislature, on years that the preferential primary is held in March the General Assembly will instead meet on the second Wednesday of April.
By law, fiscal session can only last 30 days but can be extended one time for 15 days if three-fourths of both chambers agrees. The Arkansas House has 100 members, while there are 35 senators in the upper chamber.
Meanwhile, many of the state’s largest agencies are also taking precautions as the number of COVID-19 cases grow. For example, the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Department of Transportation (ARDOT) are cancelling three upcoming regional public meetings to promote a sales tax measure for state highway projects.
The Commission and ARDOT have hosted nine of 12 planned meetings across the state to garner support to permanently extend a half-cent sales tax proposal on the November 3 ballot.
“As recommended by health officials, ARDOT is implementing social distancing mitigation measures to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Arkansas communities,” state highway officials said in a news release. “ARDOT and the Commission have been hosting a series of regional public meetings around the State regarding the upcoming vote on the continuation of the temporary half-cent sales tax.”
Originally, Arkansas voters approved the tax in 2012 for 10 years. It is set to expire in 2023. Under the Issue 1 proposal on the fall ballot to continue that half-cent sales tax, Gov. Hutchinson and a large coalition of backers say the measure would provide more than $205 million a year in funding to maintain, improve, and construct nearly 7,000 miles of interstate and highway miles and repair and replace dangerous bridges throughout the state – all without raising taxes.
ARDOT said it will continue to work with other state and public health officials on a response to COVID-19. “Once it has been determined to be safe for public gatherings, the final three meetings will be rescheduled,” officials said.
At the state Department of Finance and Administration, agency officials there are urging Arkansans to consider conducting any Revenue Office-related business online, such as registering a vehicle, renewing registration, or replacing a driver’s license.
“A key priority at DFA over the last few years has been making as many of our services as possible available online,” said DFA Secretary Larry Walther. “I encourage Arkansans to explore these online resources as many of the trips being made to the Revenue Office may not be required.”
The Arkansas Judiciary also announced on March 16 that local, district and circuit courts across the state are changing operations in response to concerns over COVID-19. The Judiciary branch has set up a dedicated website (below) where the public can view any closings, cancellations, and change. https://www.arcourts.gov/news/judiciary-closings-cancellations-changes
On March 16 Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced a 12 to 5 a.m. curfew as a measure to help curb gatherings of people at night spots where coronavirus could be easily spread. As of Wednesday (March 18), all city buildings have been closed to the public, and city officials are encouraging residents and businesses to handle business online.
Scott also announced that Arkansas’ largest city will reschedule gatherings with expected attendance of 50 or more, noting this is a change from the previous plan of 100 or more which had been initially set at 200. As noted by Hutchinson, Scott said this change is to keep in step with the CDC’s guideline that dropped the target attendance number for gatherings to 50.