Hutchinson: Decision Coming Wednesday on Easing Virus Limits

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LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that he will announce this week whether the state can further ease coronavirus restrictions even as the number of cases in the state passed 10,000.

Hutchinson said he planned to announce Wednesday whether and when the state can enter “Phase 2″ of reopening. Arkansas has allowed businesses that closed because of the pandemic to reopen in recent weeks but with limits on capacity and other safety rules.

The Republican governor previewed the announcement as he faced pushback from a GOP lawmaker in northeast Arkansas who said businesses in his district are preparing to defy the state and ease restrictions on their own starting Friday.

Rep. Dan Sullivan, who called the state’s current restriction’s “excessive” in a letter to Hutchinson dated Monday, declined to name the businesses. Sullivan said he’s met with about 12 to 15 restaurants in his district about the issue.

“The restaurants I met with and many constituents would like for us to move forward and more freedom,” Sullivan said.

Hutchinson said he hadn’t spoken with Sullivan, but said businesses that defy the state’s restrictions could jeopardize their licenses.

“I get letters from both sides,” Hutchinson said. “I get letters saying you’re going too fast, slow down, don’t open things up. I get letters that say you’re going too slow, you’ve got to open it up quicker.”

The Health Department said at least 10,080 people in the state have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 340 over the previous day. The number of active cases, meaning they don’t include people who have recovered or died, rose to 3,044.

The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The number of people who have died from the virus caused by the coronavirus rose by six to 161. The number of people hospitalized rose to 173.

Arkansas’ active cases have been steadily increasing since late May, when the governor said the state had entered a second peak. The increase has been driven by a spike in cases in northwest Arkansas, which previously had not seen as much activity as other parts of the state. Hutchinson has also said it’s partly due to an increase in testing in the state.

“In Arkansas, the quickness of the second peak was a surprise and the fact that we don’t know where it’s going to go from here is something that is still a little bit unpredictable,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson on Monday backed off the possibility of allowing some, but not all, parts of the state to further ease restrictions. The governor on Tuesday didn’t say whether that approach remained off the table.

Law Enforcement Task Force

Also Tuesday, the governor formed a task force to examine law enforcement training and policies in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis police officer.

Hutchinson said the “task force to advance the state of law enforcement in Arkansas” will issue recommendations by the end of the year. The governor said its duties will include examining the accountability of officers who don’t meet standards, as well as the possible creation of a statewide public database of complaints against law enforcement officers.

Hutchinson created the panel in response to days of protests in Arkansas and nationwide over Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Floyd died May 25 after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for almost nine minutes, even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air. 

The panel’s members will include retired and current law enforcement, as well as at least two leaders of local protests held in Arkansas over Floyd’s death.

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