High school football teams can begin no-contact practice in Arkansas starting next week as the total number of people to test positive for the coronavirus surpasses 42,000.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Friday the state saw 752 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 42,511. An additional 11 Arkansans died from the disease for a death toll of 453.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Hutchinson said he’s directing the Arkansas Activities Association, which oversees high school sports, to submit COVID-19 safety plans to the Health Department for football, volleyball and cheerleading to resume once schools reopen the week of Aug. 24.
“If we do not have sports, then many of the student athletes will be traveling out of state to participate in sports which adds another level of risk, and that increases the risk,” Hutchinson said. “We have over three weeks before school starts… we will learn what adjustments need to be made and we will improve our safety protocols.”
Hutchinson also formed an advisory group tasked with making recommendations on how to best protect student athletes and school staff during the return to athletics. The group, chaired by Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe, will also include educators, physicians and researchers from the state Health Department.
Acting Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said he endorses the return to high school athletics despite recent well-publicized coronavirus outbreaks within professional sports teams.
“We'll see what happens. It may go forward, it may collapse upon itself… it is up to the player to keep his team in play, and it’s up to the coach to remind them to keep it in play. So if they're willing to put in the extra effort, then maybe they'll be able to go forward. We'll see,” Romero said.
Hutchinson said it falls on individual players and coaches to ensure compliance with best practices to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“These aren’t mandatory. Parents can make the decisions and students can make the decision, ‘I don't want to participate, the risks are too great,’” Hutchinson said. “These are extra activities and we believe that they are important, and so we want to help get there by having the right guidelines and protocols for that.”
Sebastian County saw the highest increase in new cases Friday with 81 residents testing positive. Pulaski County added 77 new cases while Benton and Washington counties saw 51 and 41 new cases respectively.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 increased by three to 507, with 100 patients on a ventilator. As of Friday the state had 6,645 active COVID-19 cases, including 329 inmates of correctional facilities and 75 nursing home residents.