A report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force released Tuesday says the pandemic is rapidly getting worse in Arkansas. It said considering the higher infection rate in the past two weeks, “Arkansas is on the precipice of a rapid, accelerating increase in cases, which will be followed with new hospital admissions.”
"That’s a statement that will get your attention as a leader," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly press briefing on the pandemic. "We look at the holiday season that is approaching, and we have to be mindful that if Arkansas continues at the present pace over the last two days, then Arkansas will have an additional 1,000 Arkansans that will die as a result of COVID-19 between now and Christmas."
The state Department of Health reported Arkansas had 20 additional deaths Tuesday. That followed a record 42 cases on Monday, with the death toll in the state is now 2,245.
According to Health Secretary Dr. José Romero, the majority of recent COVID-19 deaths are coming from the state’s nursing homes and others in congregate living centers.
"There’s clearly a vulnerable population and a population that we’re concerned about," Romero said.
He stated that seeing elderly family during the holiday season could be a determent to their health and to consider postponing Thanksgiving celebrations until a later date. Romero also spoke on the current status of the pandemic in Arkansas, comparing it to a boulder rolling down a hill.
"There will come a time where we cannot stop it. It will continue to escalate and will eventually overwhelm our healthcare facilities. Now is the time to act," Romero said.
The state also reported 1,554 new cases of people testing positive for the virus Tuesday, bringing the cumulative total to 135,902. Of those cases. 16,576 are considered active, which is an increase of 91 compared to the day before.
Pulaski County had the highest number of new cases, with 148. The northwest counties of Washington and Benton added 133 and 102 new cases respectively.
The number of hospitalizations in the state also continues to climb, recording an additional 34 people on Tuesday as the current total reached 895, a new high. Arkansans on a ventilator also increased, adding 14 compared to Monday, bringing the total 137.
The White House report on the pandemic places Arkansas in the red zone for both the number of cases and the test positivity rate. It also recommended the state reduce capacity at bars and restaurants in most areas of the state to 25%. The current restriction is two-thirds capacity.
But Hutchinson rejected the recommendation, saying it would be detrimental to the businesses that are already struggling.
“They’re already limited and if you cut that back further, you’re going to be putting a lot of them underwater and you’re going to be putting a lot of people unemployed,” Hutchinson said.
Mike Moore with the enforcement division of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control, says stricter enforcement of existing restrictions can help make a difference. In recent months, agents have been giving verbal warnings to bars and restaurants where problems have been found.
"Four months is a long time to be giving warnings, and so I think what you’re going to see in the coming days is when we find people that are non-compliant, there’s going to be more accountability. And we’re going to up that just a little bit to see if we can get some better results," Moore said.
The governor suggested much of the spreading of the virus is not at businesses, but families and friends getting together. He said that’s especially important to consider heading into the holidays.
"You can’t regulate the home. We wouldn’t want to,” Hutchinson said. “All we can do is admonish. We’re not having home police, and so that’s where we’re asking people to be careful about those gatherings over Thanksgiving and the social life as well. People are doing that, we just need more to do it."
This greater increase in cases also has impacted the state’s public schools, where a total of 276 schools or districts have at one point needed to modify their in-person learning plans due to the pandemic. According to Education Secretary Johnny Key, there are currently 72 active instances of districts or schools moving to remote learning, with 16 of those added this week.
"Frankly this is not a surprise given the increasing number of cases in the community. We expected this and worked back in the summer with the Arkansas Department of Health to plan for it through our ready for learning guidance and our response levels to onsite learning," Key said.
For businesses in the hospitality and personal care industry, there is a new resource for funding through a Business Interruption Grant. According to Stacy Hurst, secretary of the state’s department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, this $50 million in funding, available due to Federal CARES Act, will be distributed to qualified businesses, based on reimbursement of certain expenses.
Hurst said the portal for grant applications opened on Monday and will stay open through November 25. The grants are not on a first-come, first-serve basis.