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Health & Science
These are featured stories of how the Upper Delta and Mid-South is combating the Coronavirus as well as resources to help those impacted by the pandemic.

Arkansas requires face masks to combat coronavirus surge, Jonesboro Mayor shows support

Governor Asa Hutchinson at a daily coronavirus press briefing.
Daniel Breen
/
KUAR
Governor Asa Hutchinson at a daily coronavirus press briefing.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an order Thursday requiring people to wear face masks in public throughout the state, which has had a surge in coronavirus cases over the past several weeks.

The Republican governor had resisted a statewide mask mandate and opposed issuing a stay-at-home order earlier in the pandemic, but he announced the order requiring masks when social distancing isn't possible in the hopes of slowing the disease's rapid spread in the state. The order takes effect Monday.

Hutchinson said the state's rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths show that more needs to be done to combat the virus' spread. He also said adults needs to set the right example for the state's schoolchildren, many of whom will be required to wear masks when in-person classes resume next month.

"This whole fight against COVID-19 is likely to get harder and not easier, and we have to meet the challenge together. Everyone must do their part," Hutchinson said. "This is a way to enlist the support of everyone in this fight."

Hutchinson's decision comes amid growing support for mask requirements from business and health leaders and a day after Bentonville-based Walmart said it would require customers to wear masks in all of its U.S. stores. The state's largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, also called for a statewide requirement on Thursday.

Hutchinson previously encouraged people to wear masks and allowed cities to pass ordinances requiring their use, but he stopped short of requiring them statewide. He's the latest Republican governor to relent on the mask issue in the face of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Alabama's governor issued a similar mask mandate on Wednesday.

Arkansas' coronavirus cases have dramatically risen since May, when the state began allowing businesses that had closed because of the pandemic to reopen despite warnings from federal health officials about the risks of doing so too soon. Arkansas was one of a handful of states that did not issue a broad stay-at-home order to keep most businesses closed.

Hutchinson announced the order as the state reported one of its biggest single-day increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases. The Health Department on Thursday added 817 new confirmed cases to the state's overall tally 31,114 since the pandemic started. It also raised the state's death toll by six, to 341, and added 12 more patients to the number of people currently hospitalized with the disease, for a total of 470.

The order includes several exemptions, including people younger than 10 years old or those engaged in religious worship, despite worship services being identified as sources of outbreaks in Arkansas and elsewhere. Violators could face a fine of up to $500. The order prohibits law enforcement from detaining or arresting anyone for not complying, and says first-time violators will only receive a verbal or written warning.

The order also allows the state to exempt counties that the Health Department has certified as having a low risk of transmission. Hutchinson said that would be defined as counties that have had no positive cases for 28 days and have adequate testing capability. It was unclear whether any counties currently could be exempted under that provision.

Hutchinson previously questioned how a mask mandate could be enforced in a rural state such as Arkansas, but this week he left open the possibility of such a requirement. The chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences called for a statewide requirement last weekend.

"This is the right decision and will flatten the curve and save lives in Arkansas as we fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson tweeted moments after Hutchinson's announcement.

Hutchinson's order was expected to face criticism from some conservatives in the solidly Republican state. Hours before he issued the order, a Republican legislator who said he expected the mandate from Hutchinson called it an overreach by the state.

"It's not a question of whether you want to wear a mask or not. The question is whether you want a state so powerful that it can mandate you wearing a mask," state Sen. Bob Ballinger said in a video posted on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin released this statement in response to Hutchinson's announcement on face coverings:

I like the governor’s message that this is a challenge we need to meet together.

Arkansas' total coronavirus cases and active cases as of Thursday, July 16.  Craighead County leads the northeast region in active cases.
Credit Arkansas Department of Health
Arkansas' total coronavirus cases and active cases as of Thursday, July 16. Craighead County leads the northeast region in active cases.

It’s time to put away conspiracy theories and side taking, and fight this virus as a community with one goal in mind: run COVID-19 out of town.

I don’t enjoy wearing a mask and would prefer not to, but I understand how germs work. That tells me to trust the experts who almost uniformly tell us that this is crucial to keeping Jonesboro from the sad outcome so many cities and states have endured.

Our total cases now are well above 500 in Craighead County, but what concerns me is that we have grown from 57 active cases to more than 130 in the past seven days. That is a warning of potential peril to our city.

So I urge everyone to diligently follow governor’s executive order to protect us and our loved ones from this virus by:

  1. using social distancing;
  2. wearing a mask in public and at work;
  3. washing your hands as often as possible and carrying hand sanitizer.

Those actions are not too much to ask when faced with a pandemic, and I encourage everyone to embrace them. We will get through this. #JonesboroStrong

Since Wednesday, Craighead County, which includes Jonesboro, has lead Arkansas' northeast health unit region with having the most active cases.  On Thursday, Craighead was the only county in the region with more than 20 new cases, recording 22 infections.  The county has 126 active postitive cases. 

The public safety committee of the Jonesboro City Council on Monday approved pushing two measures to the full city council that would have recommended residents to weark face masks in public.  The council was expected to debate the measures on Tuesday, July 21.

Mississippi County has the second highest active cases with 111.  Crittenden County, which has lead the region in active cases for weeks, now has the third highest active cases with 104.

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Follow all of AP's coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak