Arkansas businesses uncertain ahead of governor’s announcements to reopen state

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As Governor Asa Hutchinson prepares to announce decisions for when businesses forced to close by the COVID-19 outbreak could possibly restart, there’s uncertainty among business leaders.

A trio of Little Rock company owners touched on that uncertainty while being honored by the local Rotary Club for the way they adapted to the outbreak.

“It’s been chaos,” said Steve Harrison, head of Natural State Labs, which went from genetic testing to drive-up virus testing in a matter of days. “I think is the best way to describe it.”

Harrison joined Phil Brandon of Rock Town Distillery, Patrick Schueck of Lexicon Constructors and Fabricators, and Larry Whitman, an engineering professor at UA-Little Rock.

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“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Brandon, who joined many other brewers and distilleries in switching to making hand sanitizer to avoid going from booze to bear market overnight. 

“The hand sanitizer we make is primarily alcohol, and we make alcohol everyday. I think the demand is going to be there for quite a while and we’ll keep making it as long as there’s a market for it.”

Dean Whitman and Schueck talked about collaborating to ramp up production of face shield components to meet the demand for personal protective equipment.

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They along with Harrison managed to stay open, though under the “targeted approach” used by the governor, didn’t face pressure to shut down. They all spoke of how quickly events unfolded and how quickly they had to respond.

“It’s been kind of the wild wild west in terms of where this is going to go,” said Harrison, who is now hustling to provide required 48-hour virus testing for the many people green-lighted to get delayed elective surgery.

While those patients rush in, not everyone is in a hurry.

“Some would like to see the restaurants and barber shops in their community opened yesterday. Some would like to see it delayed,” the governor said of responses he’s heard from mayors ahead of his decision days.

A similar split exists in the business community.

“I think it’s pretty evenly divided across the board,” said Jay Chesshir, the president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and moderator of the Rotary Club panel. “The want-to and the intent and the desire is there. They just want to do so in a safe manor.”