COVID-19 Cases Rise Again In Arkansas Prisons; Travel Restrictions Lifted

May 5, 2020

Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Stacy Hurst speaks with reporters alongside Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

Gov. Asa Hutchinson says a delayed response from the federal government is to blame for a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases at an Arkansas prison.

This comes as a total of 3,496 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Arkansas, while 83 have died from COVID-19.

Speaking in his daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday, Hutchinson said the number of inmates and staff testing positive at the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City has increased by 92, for a total of 264 cases.

“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the… U. S. Bureau of Prisons is going in there and finally doing the testing that we'd like to have seen done before, and particularly of the staff. The staff needed to be tested, and that's within their jurisdiction their control,” Hutchinson said. “Our Department of Health has advised them of the need for this, we've done this at Cummins.”

Cases also continue to rise at the Cummins Unit state prison near Pine Bluff, where 876 cases have been identified and five inmates have died. Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said three more inmates at Cummins have tested positive as the Health Department begins to test two barracks where inmates had previously tested negative, then later developed COVID-19 symptoms.

Hutchinson said he is extending the state’s public health and disaster emergency order for 45 more days, which was originally set to expire on May 21. Arkansas had a total of 1,364 active coronavirus cases Tuesday with two additional deaths from COVID-19 since Monday.

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

As restaurants, barbershops and other businesses prepare to return to limited operations, Hutchinson announced he would also lift restrictions on recreational out-of-state travelers. Smith said people coming from so-called “hot spots” of coronavirus activity will still be required to self-quarantine for 14 days should they choose to travel to Arkansas.

“We're kind of an island of lower risk and so it's important that we welcome our neighbors from other states, but we also need to protect our people here from increased risk of exposure from people travelling from those areas where it's a higher risk,” Smith said.

The areas defined as hot spots are currently limited to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans, though Hutchinson said Smith has the authority to determine which areas qualify for restrictions.

Stacy Hurst, secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said the hotel industry in Arkansas will also open up to recreational travelers.

“As an industry, they have strong protocols in place to follow to protect guests as well as their staff. They've been incredibly cooperative throughout this public health emergency, and we thank them for working alongside us and we are excited about this news for them,” Hurst said.

Hurst said overnight lodging at state parks will also be available for out-of-state travelers. Hutchinson also said he would amend guidelines for gyms and fitness centers to allow for patrons to use swimming pools to swim laps, and said he will update a directive governing recreational swimming pools later this week.