Arkansas set a new daily record Thursday for the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus. At a meeting of cabinet secretaries in North Little Rock, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said 1,265 people had tested positive in the previous 24 hours. 1,066 of those cases were confirmed through PCR tests, he said, while 199 were probable cases using the less reliable, but quicker antigen tests.
Deaths rose by 21 people, the Department of Health reported, reaching 1,503. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also reached a new high for the third day in a row.
“That is a sobering reminder of what’s in front of us and what we’re having to deal with every day,” Hutchinson said. “My message to Arkansas is that it is in virtually every community across this state. There’s not a grocery store, there’s not any place you can go that you can avoid being mindful that someone there may have the virus,” Hutchinson said.
But the governor told members of his administration that he is not considering additional restrictions at this time to try and curb the spread of the virus. Instead he is repeating calls for people to exercise personal responsibility by wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands or using hand sanitizer.
“We’re Republicans, we’re conservative, and we don’t want to increase restrictions on business. We don’t want to increase mandates, and the only way you can navigate through this crisis is by simply making sure that we have individual discipline and we do what’s right within our families and our community and we can protect each other,” Hutchinson said.
The meeting, which was held at an office of the Department of Corrections, was the first time all cabinet members had met in-person since the pandemic began. The goal was for department heads to discuss budget priorities ahead of the fiscal session of the Arkansas General Assembly which begins in January.
Next week, legislative committees will begin holding budget hearings. The state currently has a surplus of $158.8 million thanks to tax revenue coming in higher than had been forecast during the first three months of the fiscal year that began in July. But with so much uncertainty about what could happen with the outbreak and the possibility new business shutdowns will be needed, Hutchinson said state agencies need to maintain adequate reserves.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston told cabinet members that Arkansas is doing better than most other states because of cautious budgeting. He said two states are currently borrowing money from the federal government and raising taxes on their businesses to address budget shortfalls.
“They were not mindful with their funds and did not stabilize their trust fund. We however did so, and that’s a product of the governor’s leadership and the legislature working with us to allow us to do that. So as a state, in terms of our unemployment, we are in a much better situation than other states,” Preston said.
He noted that unemployment in Arkansas was at 7.4% percent in the latest report, down from a peak of 10.2% earlier this year. When the pandemic began, unemployment was at 3.4%.
“We do have a lot of work to do to turn that corner and we will continue to do so,” Preston said.
Only the first part of the meeting was open to the press, with cabinet members then discussing budgetary matters behind closed doors.
During the break in the meeting, Hutchinson told reporters he was concerned about the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. On Thursday the state reported nine additional people had been admitted around the state, bringing the total number 547.
“Of course we’re watching the hospitalizations very carefully to make sure we have capacity, including ICU and the ventilator use. We do have additional capacity, but it’s going to get tight at some point and that’s why we’ve got to drive home the message to reduce the number of cases because more cases leads to more hospitalizations that leads to more deaths,” Hutchinson said. “We want to have that heathy margin, particularly as we go into flu season and all the other health needs that we have out there that we want to make sure are managed.”