Some spikes likely amid reopening, governor says
Gov. Asa Hutchinson warned Monday that Arkansas is likely to experience some localized spikes in covid-19 infections as the state begins to phase in less-restrictive directives on businesses over the next two weeks.
The governor offered the prediction after announcing the final pair of directives — covering large indoor and outdoor venues and places of worship — in the first phase of his administration’s plan for reopening the economy and as the number of new infections in the state grew by 38.
With those new cases, the Arkansas Department of Health reported Monday that 3,469 people in the state have been infected with the virus, with the rolling-average of new cases continuing to slope downward.
Health officials also reported five new deaths, bringing the state’s total to 81.
When asked whether reopened businesses could cause a spike in those numbers, Hutchinson said he expected “to see some.”
But in order to move on to a wider reopening, Hutchin
son said, state officials would be counted on to contain any outbreaks and keep the statewide caseload from rising significantly over the next two weeks.
“It very well could be in a prison environment,” the governor said. “It could be somewhere else despite all of the controls that we’ve put into place. My hope is that even though we might have a quick spike, that because of our contract tracing capacity, the infrastructure that we’ve built up, we can go in there quickly and identify and control that.”
The first phase of the plan to reopen the state’s economy amid the pandemic took effect Monday with the easing of restrictions that had forced gyms and large outdoor venues — such as fairgrounds, racetracks and sports stadiums — to close.
Guidance for places of worship was updated Monday to recommend that parishioners can attend church if they wear masks and keep 6 feet apart from other family groups. The Health Department continued to “strongly” encourage churches to hold services online.
Last week, the governor announced that hair and nail salons and other personal services businesses can open Wednesday and restaurants can resume dine-in service May 11.
On Monday, the governor said the final step in the rollout of the first phase will be the reopening of larger indoor venues, such as movie theaters, auditoriums, museums, arenas, funeral homes and bowling alleys starting May 18.
Larger venues that reopen under the governor’s directive will have to limit their occupancy to no more than 100 people, with audiences limited to 50 people. Families will be asked to sit together and 6 feet apart from other groups, while teens and adults will be required to wear masks. Similar distancing requirements have been put in place for restaurants, gyms, barbershops and beauty salons.
By limiting the number of people in larger venues, Health Secretary Nate Smith said it will be easier to conduct contract tracing in the event an outbreak does occur.
The number of covid-19 infections at the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County continued to rise Monday — 14 new cases were reported — as prisoners called attention to a policy that allows staff members who have tested positive for the virus to continue showing up to work.
Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, confirmed that the policy was implemented following guidance from the Health Department on April 15.
The guidance states that covid-positive staff who are asymptomatic may report to work at facilities where the virus has caused a “critical shortage of workers” and infected inmates as well.
The virus has caused an outbreak at Arkansas’ largest state prison, the Cummins Unit, where it has infected 873 inmates and killed four.
At least 54 staff members at the prison have tested positive for the virus. Graves declined to say Monday how many of those were still reporting to work.
Attorneys who represent 11 inmates in a lawsuit over conditions at state prisons first called attention to the policy in a court filing Monday, arguing that it put more inmates at risk of getting sick.
“This spread of COVID-19 in Cummins Unit led to infections of corrections staff, as well as prisoners, creating staffing shortages that resulted in [corrections officials] taking the extraordinary step of having infected corrections officers report to work in the most congested and congregate setting imaginable, thereby facilitating even further spread of the virus,” the filing stated. “Adopting adequate measures to reduce and ultimately stop the spread of infection will make ADC facilities safer and more secure.”
Graves referred all other comment on the filing to the attorney general’s office.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement Monday that the prison system “is exceeding the Health Department’s guidance on staffing and I will file additional evidence with the Court by noon tomorrow.”
The prisoners’ filing was made after U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker declined to issue an emergency injunction against the Department of Corrections earlier Monday to force officials to provide inmates with better access to sanitation products and social distancing.
Attorneys for the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Arkansas who are representing the inmates have requested a myriad of steps for corrections officials to take to protect inmates, including the release of older and medically frail inmates.
Baker has set a hearing for Thursday to consider those additional requests.
One of four Cummins inmates who died over the weekend from the coronavirus was identified as 70-yearold John Young in a report released by the Pulaski County coroner’s office.
Young had diabetes, underwent open-heart surgery last year and contracted tuberculosis, according to his brother Mike Young.
The Department of Corrections declined to release information about Young’s sentence or convictions. His brother said that he had been serving at Cummins for 29 years.
“I think everybody that knew my brother liked him,” Mike Young said. “He paid his time.”
A fifth inmate who died at the Cummins over the weekend is “suspected to be covid-related,” according to a spokeswoman at the Health Department who said prison officials are waiting on an autopsy to be conducted.
GUIDELINES ON WORSHIPPING
Little Rock area faith leaders say they plan to proceed with caution in response to the new set of guidelines released Monday for reopening houses of worship.
Hutchinson “strongly encouraged” the use of online platforms and the use of face masks for anyone older than 10, along with 12-foot distance recommendations for worship leaders and singers; the sanitizing of common areas; and continuing to refrain from the use of communal items such as collection plates.
The announcement came just short of two months since the covid-19 virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and when most houses of worship shifted to holding virtual services, holding meetings via Zoom and calling to check on members without ready access to technology or Wi-Fi.
Dr. Mahmoud Al-Denawy, imam of the Islamic Center of Little Rock, said that while the mosque will not reopen immediately, he and the board will meet this week to form a plan for reopening, and will consult with area doctors as to the measures and precautions that should be taken. He anticipates that the reopening will be to a very small number of people — 10 at the most — once hand sanitizer, masks and other resources are readily available for worshippers.
“We will do our best, of course, to follow these guidelines, and we’re going to start with a small number — we cannot reopen with full capacity,” said Al-Denawy. “All rules must be implemented very strictly … in order to keep our community [safe] and for the safety and security of every one of us.”
“Because these guidelines are only [just] coming out, we can consider the implications for us and how exactly we will proceed,” said Rabbi Barry Block of Congregation B’nai Israel.
The temple livestreamed services for the first time in March. Block said the congregation has a high number of high-risk population members more susceptible to contracting the virus, and in the interest of including as many of its members as possible in worship, will continue livestream services. He said the next steps will be determined next week.
“I can assure you that however we proceed, we’ll be placing the priority of protecting lives ahead of the priority of gathering in person,” Block said, noting that the preservation of life is Judaism’s highest value. “If anything, we’ll be more cautious than the guidelines require.”
Bishop Gary Mueller noted a related tenet in United Methodist Church founder John Wesley’s first General Rule, “Do no harm,” in an email Monday that addressed Hutchinson’s new guidelines for houses of worship.
“‘Do no harm’ compels those of us who are disciples shaped by the Wesleyan perspective to make sure that our personal actions do not harm others, even if we are not intentionally doing so,” he wrote.
Mueller, head of the church’s Arkansas Conference, is one of several faith leaders who are members of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Task Force created last month to address recommendations for recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Mueller called for “abundant caution” and the continuation of measured approaches, and reminded adherents that no indoor events taking place in person would be permitted through at least May
Guidelines issued Monday by the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, Larry Benfield, include continuing to hold church services online during May, said the Rev. Danny Schieffler, rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church. Schieffler noted that the document Benfield shared was several pages long.
“There’s a lot of things that [Benfield] wants us to focus on this month” in preparation for resuming physical worship in June, Schieffler said.
He said there were items in Hutchinson’s guidelines that raised questions for Saint Mark’s: “How are you going to accommodate people in groups sitting at least 6 feet apart? Who’s going to guide them to those locations? Who’s going to monitor attendance? What will you do if somebody ignores the safety protocols?
“We’ve got some homework and preparation to do in order to comply with the governor’s guidelines,” Schieffler added.
Mueller, who said he will announce more guidelines for United Methodist churches in Arkansas on Wednesday, shared that he has been impressed by the “faithfulness, innovation and creativity these last weeks” of Arkansas conference members.
“This has been a difficult season for you. It also has been a season of growth and learning,” Mueller said. “Thank you for all you are doing. I have prayed every day for you and will continue to do so.
“Remember, we are not striving to go back to our old normal. Rather, we want to embrace Jesus’ new normal.”
JOBLESS HELP UPDATES
The Arkansas Division of Workforce Services on Monday opened its application system to allow self-employed workers to sign up for unemployment insurance benefits.
The department has been developing the system for about a month to include individual contractors, nonprofit employees and gig-economy workers who freelance their skills.
Applicants can begin signing up today online through ARunemployment.com or by calling the hot line at (844) 908-2178 from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Applicants can receive benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program passed by Congress in March. It is a federal program that offers regular state unemployment benefits and extended federal benefits to workers whose jobs have been disrupted by covid-19.
The program provides 39 weeks of state benefits with weekly payments ranging from $133 to $451, based on previous income. Assistance also includes an extra $600 weekly benefit from the federal government for the first 13 weeks of eligibility. Benefit payments would be retroactive to Feb. 8.