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LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he is not ready to further ease restrictions on businesses while coronavirus cases continue surging, while the mayor of the state’s capital city ordered people to wear masks in public to prevent the virus’s spread.
Arkansas on Thursday posted one of its highest one-day increases in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, with 687 more people testing positive for the virus. The latest figures brings Arkansas’ total reported virus cases to at least 18,062. Health officials said 5,695 of the cases are active, meaning they don’t include people who have died or recovered.
Arkansas’ virus numbers have dramatically risen since last month, when businesses began reopening. The governor of neighboring Texas on Thursday said his state’s aggressive reopening plans were on pause and halted elective surgeries in some counties because of a major outbreak there.
Hutchinson earlier this month allowed restaurants and other businesses to serve more customers. The state had not set a timeline for moving into the next phase of reopening.
“We’re clearly on pause here in the state in terms of moving to lift further restrictions until we’re comfortable where we are in controlling the spread,” Hutchinson told reporters.
Arkansas’ active cases have risen 242% since Memorial Day, while hospitalizations have nearly tripled the same period.
The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The Health Department said two more people died from the illness caused by the virus, bringing the state’s total fatalities to 242. The state’s hospitalizations rose by 17 to 284.
Hutchinson said Texas was further along in its reopening than Arkansas, with higher capacity limits, and said he’s not looking at reimposing any of the restrictions the state has rolled back.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott signed an executive order requiring masks to be worn in most public settings, including grocery stores and other retail businesses, when social distancing of at least six feet isn’t possible. The 12-page order, however, doesn’t detail any penalties for violating the requirement.
A spokeswoman said the city can pursue “all legal remedies to the city to handle public nuisances,” including citations, but that officials hoped residents would comply voluntarily.
“We are obligated to take the strongest action permitted by law to ensure the residents of Little Rock are protected,” Scott’s order said. The order said it doesn’t amend any of the state’s rules for wearing masks in certain businesses, like restaurants and bars.
Little Rock becomes the second major city in Arkansas to enact a mask requirement. The city of Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas approved an ordinance requiring masks last week.
Hutchinson has said cities don’t have the authority to require masks be worn under his order declaring an emergency because of the pandemic. But he’s also said he doesn’t plan on taking any action to halt the local requirements.
Hutchinson rejected calls to implement a statewide mask requirement. The governor said he was concerned that requiring rather than encouraging masks could create widespread resistance rather than acceptance of them.
“It throws the whole thing in shambles and loses credibility,” he said.
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