Governor Defends Easing Virus Limits As Cases Rise

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LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday defended his decision to lift more coronavirus restrictions on businesses, even as the state posted a new record one-day increase in virus cases since the pandemic began.

The Health Department said at least 10,816 residents have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 448 over the previous day. The department said 3,294 of those cases are active, meaning they don’t include people who have died or recovered.

Thursday marked the biggest one-day increase in cases among non-incarcerated people, with only four of the new cases coming from correctional facilities. 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 latest increase came a day after Hutchinson said the state will move into “Phase 2″ on Monday, meaning bars, restaurants and other businesses can raise their capacity limits to two-thirds. 

“Regardless of what we see in the next week, we made the right decision to go ahead and lift some of these restrictions so we don’t cause more damage to people’s lives and their livelihood,” said Hutchinson, who said the eased restrictions shouldn’t minimize the seriousness of the virus and the precautions people need to take.

But the decision to ease the restrictions amidst an ongoing spike is cases is still drawing concern. The number of Arkansas active cases, those that don’t include people who have died or recovered, has nearly doubled since Memorial Day. The state’s hospitalizations have risen by more than 88% in the same period.

“I think it communicates a sense we’re out of the woods and a sense that it’s less serious rather than more,” said Rep. Megan Godfrey, a Democrat from Springdale, where nearly all of the 143 new cases in Washington County reported Thursday were located.

Tyson Foods on Thursday said 199 of its employees at a poultry facility in Springdale tested positive for the virus. The Springdale-based company said 1,102 employees at the Berry Street facility were tested last week. Only one of the workers who tested positive showed symptoms, the company said. The new cases at the facility are in addition to 48 others identified by the state Department of Health or through their own health care providers.

Washington Regional Medical System said it’s seen a 350% increase in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, over the past week. It’s also seen a 170% increase in the number of COVID-19 tests performed at its screening clinics and a 156% increase in calls to its COVID-19 hotline.

“It is important for our community to understand that we are not seeing more hospitalizations simply because more testing is being done,” Birch G. Wright, the system’s chief operating officer and administrator, said in a statement Wednesday. “We are seeing more hospitalizations because more people in our area are being infected with the virus.”

Arkansas is among a number of states where a rise in the number of positive tests has raised concerns that the trend could intensify over the summer and as people return to work.

Health officials said the number of deaths in the state from COVID-19 rose by six overnight to 171. The number of people hospitalized also rose by six to 187. The overall one-day increase is the third highest the state has seen since the pandemic began.

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