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Arkansas Coronavirus Cases At 62; Governor Extends School Closure, Restricts Restaurants

Daniel Breen

The number of coronavirus cases in Arkansas has risen to 62, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday. That included people in nine counties that have not previously had positive cases.

All but one previous case were limited to people who had traveled outside of the state or had contact with those people. Without providing specific numbers, Hutchinson said more people are contracting the virus in-state.

“It is clear to me that we do have increasing community spread, and whereas before it was primarily based upon travel geography of where they have traveled to and back to Arkansas… but we did have one instance of community spread and now there's more than just one,” Hutchinson said.

In an effort to try and limit transmission of the virus, the governor issued new directives, including keeping schools closed an additional three weeks beyond what was originally planned. Hutchinson had said Wednesday that officials were working toward reopening schools on March 30. Now K-12 schools are to remain closed until April 17.

He also ordered all state government employees to use telecommuting rather than going into an office. Bars and restaurant are required to close dine in areas and be limited to drive-thru and carry out. Gyms and other indoor venues also are to be closed. Hospitals, clinics and mental health facilities are required to check the temperature of each person entering the facilities and question them about possible symptoms.

Hutchinson also reiterated the importance of people avoiding large crowds and not traveling.

“It's going to be a very difficult time. We're going to lose some businesses as a result of this we hope only for a short time but we also want to help as many survive as they can,” Hutchinson said.

Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the majority of cases in Arkansas are in young-to-middle aged adults.

“Of the cases that we've had so far six have been children, 15 have been 65 and older and, 41 have been adults aged…19 to 64,” Smith said.

Only a small percentage of cases in the state have required hospitalization, he said. A total of 20 counties in Arkansas now have confirmed cases, with Pulaski, Jefferson and Cleburne having 10 or more cases of COVID-19.

Hutchinson’s directive on bars and restaurants came hours after Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. issued a similar order after receiving approval from Hutchinson and Smith. The order goes into effect at 8 a.m. Friday.

Speaking to reporters at City Hall, Scott said the restrictions are necessary to prevent further community spread of COVID-19.

“For now, this is our new normal. We’re seeing cities around the country making this order because we have to do everything within our power to stop COVID-19,” Scott said.

This comes after the first instance of community spread of the coronavirus was confirmed in Little Rock on March 13. Scott said he and city officials will reassess the order every two weeks.

According to the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas, a proclamation by Gov. Asa Hutchinson will allow restaurants to sell sealed cans and bottles of beer and wine to take-out and delivery customers for the next 30 days. Hard liquor and mixed drinks are not included in the proclamation, and third party delivery services will not be allowed to deliver beer and wine.

Scott said he was aware of the potential for job losses, but suggested restaurants find alternative ways to use their employees.

“We strongly encourage our restaurants to use their vitally important waiters and waitresses in other capacities, like carhops and delivery drivers, so they do not lose their income as a result,” Scott said.

In an effort to lessen the financial strain of the restrictions on restaurant owners, Scott says the city will temporarily waive restaurant zoning restrictions and approve other temporary uses of their space. Scott said restaurant spaces could serve as boutique food markets or specialty grocery stores as long as their maximum occupancy does not exceed 10 people.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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