Arkansas Lawmakers Approve New COVID-19 Funds; Pool, Surgery Restrictions Lifted

May 8, 2020

UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson speaks with reporters alongside Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

The state legislature has approved new funding for grants to small businesses and direct payments to healthcare workers in Arkansas. This comes as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus rose by 82 Friday, bringing the state’s total to 3,747.

Speaking during his daily press briefing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said lawmakers approved funding for bonus payments to non-physician direct care workers in hospitals, as well as healthcare workers who don’t have contact with patients.

He said workers who have temporarily lost their jobs should theoretically qualify for the payments.

“It’s my understanding that the payments go back to a particular time period and so they’re retroactive. And so if they worked in that environment before they were furloughed, I would certainly think that they would be entitled to that,” Hutchinson said.

Those payments were originally announced last March, and provide qualifying workers with an additional $250 per week.

On Friday, the state legislature also approved a total of $147.7 million to go toward the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program, which will provide small businesses with up to $100,000 to pay for cleaning and personal protective equipment. That program was delayed after receiving applications well over the $15 million originally allotted for the grants.

As of Friday, 12 of the state’s 82 new coronavirus cases came from correctional institutions, including the Cummins Unit state prison where 896 inmates and 60 staff have tested positive. The state currently has 691 active coronavirus cases with 64 people hospitalized with COVID-19. The state’s death toll from the disease remained unchanged Friday at 88.

A graph shows the number of new coronavirus cases in Arkansas.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

With restaurants preparing to resume limited dine-in service on Monday, Hutchinson said certain elective surgical procedures requiring a hospital stay of up to 48 hours can also resume the same day.

Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said that will seek to make up for revenue lost by hospitals across Arkansas as fewer people are hospitalized with COVID-19.

“The inpatient burden of COVID-19 has decreased substantially in our state, and we are seeing that at UAMS as well,” Patterson said. “I think that the escalation in the clinical work that we can now do in terms of elective procedures is being done at, I think, an opportune moment.”

The governor also announced Friday that recreational swimming pools and water parks will be allowed to operate at half-capacity beginning on May 22. As was the case with lifting restrictions on gyms, hair salons and other businesses, Hutchinson said Arkansans visiting pools will have to abide by certain guidelines.

“We're not going to open it up to 100% capacity… [it has] to be 50% capacity with 6 foot physical distancing in all areas,” Hutchinson said.

Swimming pool operators must screen all patrons for symptoms of COVID-19 under the guidelines, and must test the pH level of pool water twice daily. Hutchinson said training on the guidelines for lifeguards can begin immediately.

Hutchinson said the state will also begin to utilize various resources to reach his goal of completing 60,000 coronavirus tests by the end of May.

“One of them will be utilizing our Department of Health Local Health Units... this will allow us to target areas of increased cases, and that alone could bring us potentially 14,000 new cases during the course of the month.”

Hutchinson said requirements for pregnant women to be tested, as well as greater outreach by mobile testing laboratories will help attain his goal of testing 2% of the state’s population by the end of the month. Patterson said UAMS’s mobile testing lab will travel to Dumas and Forrest City next week, both cities that have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 within nearby prisons.