Arkansans across the state will soon be required to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 due to a mandate issued by the governor on Thursday. This comes as the state experienced its third highest daily increase in new coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
The mandate goes into effect on Monday and will expire once the state of emergency concerning the pandemic ends. Currently that public health emergency is set to expire in just over two weeks, though it could be extended again.
The announcement comes as the state saw 817 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the state’s total to 31,114. Of those total cases 6,578 are considered active.
The death toll from COVID-19 increased by 6, for a total of 341. Hospitalizations and those on a ventilator also increased to 470 and 101 respectively, marking the first time the number of patients needing a ventilator has exceeded 100.
Pulaski county again led the state in new cases, with 114. The northwest counties of Washington and Benton had 68 and 58 cases respectively.
Though previously against the idea of a statewide directive, Gov. Asa Hutchinson cited multiple reasons during his daily briefing Thursday on why he made the decision to issue the executive order. These included the increasing number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state and listening to medical experts’ and state legislators’ concerns
"This whole fight against COVID-19 is likely to get harder and not easier and we have to meet the challenge together and everyone must do their part. And this is a way to enlist the support of everyone in this fight," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson also listed the upcoming school year as a reason for the order.
"Our children and grandchildren will be going back to school this year and they will be required in most instances to wear face coverings. And if you think about it, if you’re going to ask the children in the school setting to wear face coverings for everyone’s health and safety, then the adults must help them to be ready, and to set the right example for them," Hutchinson said.
The mandate requires all Arkansans, with some exceptions, to wear a mask when in an indoor setting with people not from their household and cannot maintain a distance of more than six feet. It also requires the wearing of masks outdoors when proper social distancing, a minimum of six feet, cannot be achieved.
Hutchinson previously had been against a statewide mandate, preferring what he’s called a method of education and personal responsibility from Arkansans.
When asked what caused him to change his mind concerning a statewide mandate, Hutchinson said he originally resisted a mandate because he believed it to be unenforceable and not accepted by the public.
"If you’re going to have a mandate, or a law, or a requirement, there has to be some level of acceptance for that. Through the course of time we have built that acceptance through education, through practice of industry," Hutchinson said.
The executive order does list a number of exceptions for the mask order, including:
- Children under the age of 10.
- When eating or drinking.
- Engaging in religious worship services.
- Driving alone or with passengers in the same household
- Voting, assisting voters, working as a poll watcher, or "actively performing election administration duties."
Another exception is in "counties where the Department of Health has certified that risk of community transmission is low." While Hutchinson says the specifics of that exception are still being “fine-tuned,” counties can be exempt if there are no new positive cases for 28 days in a row.
"That is the same requirement the CDC issues for loved ones visiting someone in a nursing home, that they have to be positive free for 28 days. And so I took that and said ‘That might make some sense here for a way a county can show that they really are free of COVID for that period of time in their area," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said counties must also have an adequate testing system for the coronavirus in order to be eligible for exemption from the mask order.
Unlike the previous model ordinance that the state recently allowed cities and counties to issue, violation of the statewide order can result in a misdemeanor offense and a fine between $100 and $500.
Hutchinson also announced that over 1,000 of Arkansas’s COVID-19 cases have been assigned for contact tracing to the contractor General Dynamics Information Technology. He said currently the company has 93 contract tracers, and hired an additional 200.