Arkansas’s governor says it’s up to local law enforcement agencies to decide whether to enforce a statewide order for Arkansans to wear face masks.
This comes as the state saw 648 new coronavirus cases Friday bringing the total to 31,762, and 12 additional COVID-19 deaths for a total of 353.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would defer to county sheriffs and city police departments on whether to enforce the statewide mask mandate announced Thursday.
"All of these decisions in terms of enforcement are subject to local priorities, and that is a prerogative… of the sheriff, it is the prerogative of the local police department to set their enforcement priorities. And so I defer to them on that, but it is an option that they can utilize to educate, to enforce and to make sure that we all stay healthy in our communities," Hutchinson said.
Under the mask order, which goes into effect Monday, Arkansans found in violation could face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of as much as $500.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 decreased by six to 464, with 97 patients on a ventilator. Friday’s increase in new cases brought the state’s total number of active COVID-19 cases to 6,633, including 1,013 inmates of the state’s correctional facilities.
Speaking in his final coronavirus briefing before leaving to take a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the state still has work to do to better control the spread of COVID-19.
"With the plans that we have in place, we will be tripling our contact tracing capacity over the course of the next month, and as I mentioned before, hoping to double our lab testing capacity in our public health lab," Smith said. "We’re not where we want to be in terms of testing and contact tracing, but we are expanding our capacity."
Pulaski County had the highest increase in new cases Friday with 68 residents testing positive, followed by Washington and Craighead counties with 44 and 32 new cases, respectively.
Despite Arkansas being labeled as a "red zone" for virus activity by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Gov. Hutchinson said the state has factored in the risk of teachers and students spreading the coronavirus in the decision to open schools between Aug. 24 and 26.
"There’s no one that would say there’s not going to be any risk associated with opening schools, but is there a low enough risk that we can start? And my judgment is that right now, let’s go to school. That is the best thing to do. Obviously if things change we take another look at it," Hutchinson said.
A document from the task force identifies Arkansas and 17 other states as having had more than 100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents last week. Smith said he doesn’t fully agree with the task force’s recommendations for "red zone" states to re-impose restrictions on businesses and other venues related to the pandemic.
"We did have that hot spot in the northwest part of that state, that’s coming down. We did have rising cases in central Arkansas and that’s plateaued, maybe going down," Smith said. "So we really have not had large hot spots with lots of bars and gyms, for example. And so we will try to implement those recommendations in an Arkansas-specific fashion."
Hutchinson also announced 85-year-old former Arkansas governor David Pryor had been released from the hospital after being admitted with COVID-19.