A disproportionate number of new coronavirus cases in Arkansas appear to be coming from universities, with the governor and health secretary imploring students to avoid socializing during the coming Labor Day weekend.
The Department of Health announced Thursday an additional 969 people had tested positive for the virus. Washington County – home to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville – had the highest number of new cases, with 211 reported. Of those, 81% were people between the ages of 18 and 24.
“I think it can be safely surmised that many of those new cases are college students, and it’s just a signal that we have a lot of work to do here in Arkansas,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “The virus is still out in our community in various ways and we have to protect each other. We have to follow these guidelines.”
Jefferson County, where the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is located, had 38 cases, with half of those being college-age people.
Hutchinson called this holiday weekend a “critical time” in whether the state will be able to avoid significant outbreaks at universities. Health Secretary Jose Romero said he was extremely concerned about the potential.
“This will give the college students a lot of free time,” Romero said, reiterating the importance of basic precautions like wearing masks, social distancing and frequently washing hands. “I cannot stress enough the importance of this because [cases] will increase significantly more if it’s not brought under control now.”
The state also reported 20 additional deaths, with several stemming from an outbreak at a nursing home in Mississippi County. That follows a record 27 deaths on Wednesday, though many of those were late reports added from previous months. As of Thursday, the state’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 861 people.
Meanwhile a group of 18 Republican legislators filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging restrictions that have been imposed, like the governor’s mask mandate, suggesting that officials have overstepped their authority. Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) led the effort, arguing that directives required legislative approval.
The court filing said between March 13 and August 31, 43 directives had been issued without going through the Legislative Council of the Arkansas General Assembly for review, “in accordance to the procedural safeguards incorporated in the emergency rulemaking provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act.”
The governor responded to the suit by telling reporters he is following the proper procedure.
“When people are dying, you don’t need delay, you need quick action,” Hutchinson said. “There is a national emergency and 50 states have declared an emergency. President Trump has declared a national emergency, and we’re acting based upon the authority that the legislators have given to me. Now, I am delighted that the majority of legislators understand how this works.”
The governor said the legislature could end the emergency declaration with a concurrent resolution, but said that would also end things like telemedicine, liability protection for small businesses and virtual education for school children.
Talk Business & Politics reports Rep. Sullivan said the response from Hutchinson was not adequate.
“He’s told us to not just sit on the bench, but go sit in the stands and just watch. He’s really created a branch of government outside of government with these commissions and committees that are making decisions from schools to athletics,” Sullivan said.
“This is not legislator-initiated. This is initiated by the citizens, who are losing their businesses, who have parents and grandparents in nursing homes, who felt like the restrictions were overbearing on school children, little kids in elementary school wearing masks and they can’t breathe and are coming home on hot buses,” he added. “They’re the ones that contacted us and said that we need you to have some input.”
The Arkansas Times reports the lawsuit has been assigned to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.
As the outbreak in state prisons seems to be subsiding, Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves announced Thursday that beginning next month, facilities will resume allowing in-person visitations. Those had been halted as the virus first began to spread through the state.
The Malvern Unit had been especially hard hit, but beginning next Tuesday, Graves said it will resume admitting new male inmates. That had been suspended in June, which he said caused significant backups at county jails.