Gov. Asa Hutchinson held the first of his planned community meetings, this one in Benton, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, after an unplanned meeting with about a dozen Arkansans who disagree with his actions.
Hutchinson met inside the Benton Event Center with elected officials, school and community leaders and a few other invited Saline County residents. Attendees were spaced far apart along tables set in a square. After brief remarks by the governor, members of the media were asked to leave.
Other community meetings will be held in Springdale on Wednesday and Jonesboro on Thursday. Additional ones will be scheduled next week. The governor is scheduled to address the state in a televised address at 7 p.m. this Thursday.
The governor said officials later that day would consider lowering the threshold for public meetings to be required to submit a plan to the Department of Health from the current 100 participants to 10. He said data indicates that group gatherings are adding to the spread.
Hutchinson noted that the state’s death toll from the pandemic increased by 53 the previous day, the largest increase since the pandemic began.
Vaccines are coming, he said, but, “We’ve got to get through a cold winter with holidays ahead of us in way that does not overload our hospitals, in a way that does not increase the spread, in a way that does not increase death in Arkansas.”
Hutchinson said Saline County has had more than 5,500 cumulative cases, has 767 active cases, and has had 64 deaths. Benton has had 461 active cases with 38 deaths.
The county’s 14-day rolling positivity rate is 12.6%, which is above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended 10% amount. The governor said that means there is a lot of spread among Saline County’s residents, many of whom drive to work in Pulaski County, where there are sometimes more than 200 new cases in a day. That county’s rate is 10.6%. The movement could result in more community spread, the governor said.
Hutchinson noted the state has restricted restaurants to two-thirds capacity, but it has resisted some of the restrictions imposed on businesses in other states, believing they will follow guidelines. But it takes a community effort, he said.
“What I do not want is more restrictions on our businesses because during this time of the holiday season, I think the last thing we want to do is to put people out of work,” he said. “We don’t want to cause them to go in the unemployment line. We don’t want to increase the pressure on our food banks. We want people to be working, and the way you do that is not by putting on additional restrictions.”
Prior to walking inside the Event Center, Hutchinson was confronted by about a dozen members of the American Freedom Cruisers, who stood at some distance from him and each other and were not wearing masks.
When Tonya Yielding of Cabot asked Hutchinson when the Legislature would meet, he said it would happen in January, which is when the next regular session begins. When she asked why they had not met previously, he said he was operating under emergency powers legislators had given to him under the law. He said the Legislature has been engaged in appropriating federal CARES Act money.
Bronson Martin of Conway told him, “Just on the masks (and) shutdowns – none of that’s working.” He said businesses have been forced to reduce capacity and are requiring people to wear masks because of the governor’s mask mandate, which is not a law. Hutchinson replied that restaurants are at two-thirds capacity and that gyms and barber shops are open.
“(You’ve) seen the pressure I get about shutting down businesses, and I don’t want to do that, but the way we keep businesses open is by individuals following the public health guidance and helping out,” Hutchinson said.
When Martin asked why case numbers are increasing if the mask mandate is working, the governor said not everybody wears a mask.
Someone from the back of the group said, “You’re afraid to let the Legislature meet,” with the governor then thanking the group and disengaged, leading that same person to say, “Get inside. Hide. Hide inside.”
Inside the meeting, the governor asked attendees if weekly coordination meetings between Saline County leaders would be helpful, or whether businesses could conduct a public relations and marketing campaign regarding masks and public health guidelines. He noted that the state was moving toward indoor sporting events.
“Whenever you look at getting ready for Christmas, we’ve got to talk about what are the Christmas activities of a community nature here in Saline County that we’ve got to make sure that we handle right,” he said. “We want Christmas to be a time of celebration and not a time of worrying about the spread of the virus.”