Gov. Asa Hutchinson says the last businesses still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic can soon reopen even as the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Arkansas reached 100 on Monday.
This comes as Hutchinson says the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing a possible security breach of the state’s online system for self-employed Arkansans to file for unemployment benefits.
Speaking at a press briefing in Forrest City, Hutchinson said an increase of 54 new coronavirus cases brought the state’s total to 4,813, while there were two more COVID-19 deaths. The uptick follows an additional 181 new coronavirus cases Sunday, with 131 from prisons including the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City.
Hutchinson said bar areas in restaurants can reopen on Tuesday, while free-standing bars can resume operations a week later on May 26.
“That allows really every retail, every shop to have the ability to open, even though we continue to be careful in our safety restrictions,” Hutchinson said.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said Department of Health guidelines for bars will likely mirror the state’s directives for restaurants, requiring physical distancing, limited contact and sanitation protocols. Indoor venues, like museums, funeral homes and movie theaters, were allowed to resume operations Monday, as were the state’s three casinos.
For much of Monday’s press briefing, Hutchinson fielded questions about an alleged security breach of the state’s online system used to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA; payments from the federal CARES Act intended for freelancers, independent contractors, and other self-employed people affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those payments have faced numerous delays in Arkansas, initially because, according to state officials, guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor necessitated the state build an entirely new system for people to apply for benefits. Problems with testing of the website also caused information from some of the more than 30,000 people to apply for the program to be lost.
The Arkansas Times reported last week that a computer programmer discovered a security flaw within the website, which left vulnerable applicants’ personal information including bank accounts and Social Security numbers. According to the Times, the programmer alerted Arkansas State Police after failing to reach the state Division of Workforce Services, which oversees the system.
Gov. Hutchinson characterized the programmer’s actions as “exploitation” and said he was unaware of the issue until after the website was taken offline.
“This had over 30,000 applicants go on the site, put in their information, and yet it was a computer programmer that breached the system,” Hutchinson said. “As to what does that mean in terms of the sophistication of the breach, or the sophistication of the weakness, I think I'll wait and get a report from the experts as to how that should be interpreted.”
Hutchinson said the FBI and other law enforcement entities will determine whether the programmer committed a crime in uncovering the vulnerability, and the state will hire a third party “expert” to help correct the security flaw.
“The question is, do you see a vulnerability or did you find a vulnerability? And I think I’ll let the investigation speak for itself on those points.”
Hutchinson also responded to calls from Democratic Party of Arkansas Chair Michael John Gray for a bipartisan investigation into the state’s process of setting up the system, as well as the state’s premature rollout of a grant program for small businesses.
“I think it's a shame that anybody would try to use the pandemic for partisan benefit and partisan attacks. I just think that is unnecessary, uncalled for… and whenever there's so many that are working together in a bipartisan fashion to seek solutions, I think that speaks very poorly,” Hutchinson said.
The state has faced criticism over its rollout of the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program, with state Democrats alleging some applicants had advance notice of the program’s announcement. Hutchinson said a bipartisan group of state lawmakers already discussed problems with the program in a recent meeting of the state Legislative Council.
Arkansas had 1,068 active coronavirus cases as of Monday, with 77 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 12 on a ventilator. Of the state’s active caseload, 378 are from prisons, 99 from nursing homes and 591 from the general public.
Hutchinson is also set to meet with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday at the White House to discuss Arkansas’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as operations at the state’s food processing plants.
EDIT: A statement from Democratic Party of Arkansas Chair Michael John Gray is included below in its entirety:
"There is growing bi-partisan frustration with how the state has mismanaged millions of dollars meant to provide real economic relief to independent contractors, salons, barbers, and regular mom and pop shops across Arkansas. We've seen the state bend over backward to rush deliver huge sums of money to companies that have lobbyists and CPAs at the ready, even giving them advanced notice of the Ready For Business grant program.
"Meanwhile, Arkansas is one of just a small handful of states that has failed to deliver unemployment assistance to self-employed business owners despite being more than two months into this crisis. To make matters worse, those who have applied have had their personal, financial data exposed online due to a faulty state website.
"We have put our trust in our leaders to get us through this crisis and to put Arkansas first. This isn't about blame, but we do need some accountability to make sure we move forward in a way that will truly help working Arkansans. That means creating a bi-partsian committee to investigate why some insiders had advanced knowledge of the Ready for Business Grant, why the state failed to secure it's unemployment website, and why the state has failed to deliver assistance for more than 60 days.
"Moreover, it's clear that it's time to finally show some respect to the essential workers and frontline workers who have shown up every day through this crisis. The grocery store clerks, the bank tellers, and the hardware store clerks that have kept us moving deserve support. But right now, it can sometimes feel like those who are working aren't getting much recognition. They have earned help from the state, whether it be a child tax credit or an income tax exemption. It's time for Arkansas to put it's priorities in the right order."