After resisting calls for a statewide order for Arkansans to wear face masks in public, Gov. Asa Hutchinson says individual cities can now enact similar measures.
The announcement comes as Arkansas saw 547 new coronavirus cases Friday bringing the state’s total to 22,622, while two additional COVID-19 deaths brought the death toll to 281.
Hutchinson said he has signed an executive order allowing for individual cities to implement a draft ordinance requiring face masks in public, though under the ordinance, residents would not face a penalty for not complying with the rule.
Speaking in the governor’s daily briefing Friday, Arkansas Municipal League General Counsel John Wilkerson said that lack of enforcement was intentional.
“The city has the authority… [to] educate the importance of it, inform about the ordinance, and hopefully that does it,” Wilkerson said. “There's no enforcement mechanism which is just kind of part of the issue we've been having is how to enforce it, so we took the approach of educating and informing is the most reasonable measured approach right now. So there's no enforcement in it but that was by design.”
The draft ordinance does not require people to wear masks or face a civil penalty, but says local law enforcement can serve in a support capacity for businesses wishing to enforce the ordinance. Cities can also choose not to issue the ordinance, which does not apply to the entire state.
Hutchinson cited survey results showing a majority of Arkansans wear face coverings in public as one reason he did not issue Friday’s executive order sooner.
“Whenever you look at the results of the survey, and the fact that you had [82%] say that they are wearing protective equipment and masks, I think that the strategy has been very effective in educating the public, bringing that compliance level up,” Hutchinson said.
The survey, conducted by the Little Rock-based Gilmore Strategy Group, questioned 600 likely voters between June 29 and 30. 82% of respondents said they wear protective equipment like face masks in public, 16% said they did not, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. Survey results also broke down mask-wearing habits by age range, as well as some common reasons respondents gave for not wearing a mask.
Of the 547 new coronavirus cases added Friday, 182 were among inmates at correctional facilities. The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 rose by 13 to 285, with 70 people on ventilators.
Washington County again had the highest increase with 84 new cases, while Benton and Pulaski counties each had 74 people test positive. Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the state is entering this holiday weekend with much higher coronavirus activity than in the past, with 6,177 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday.
“We have five times as many [active non-incarcerated cases] now going into this holiday weekend as we did going into Memorial Day weekend. What that means is that the same activities are going to have five times the risk, you’re five times more likely to be in contact with someone who's an active case,” Smith said. “So things you might have gotten away with over Memorial Day weekend are going to be riskier this weekend.”
Despite that, Smith said Arkansans can still celebrate Independence Day safely.
“Strictly from a communicable disease perspective, everyone ought to stay home and hold their breath for the weekend. But this is a highly communicable virus, but we have learned the things that we can do to reduce the risk of spread,” Smith said. “It is possible, it's healthy to get outside, to do some activities as long as we're keeping the physical distancing, wearing the mask, avoiding large groups.”