Task Force Named To Oversee Reopening Of Arkansas Economy From COVID-19

Apr 18, 2020

Gov. Asa Hutchinson during Saturday's press briefing shows an Abbott machine that can be used to test for COVID-19.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Saturday announced the creation of the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, which is charged with making recommendations on how best to return the state’s economy to normal following the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The recommendations must be consistent with public health requirements, Hutchinson said, while creating confidence among state residents. The announcement came one day after the governor announced a May 4 target date to begin “Phase 1” reopening of the state's economy. 

As of Saturday afternoon, COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 1,739, up from 1,695 on Friday. That number, however, does not yet include recent testing at the Cummins prison in Gould. Dr. Jennifer Dillaha with the Arkansas Department of Health said more than 200 inmates at the facility have tested positive. It is unclear how many positive inmates are included in the number of total cases statewide. 

Of the total of cases, 998 are active cases, with the remainder accounting for deaths and recoveries. The number of deaths rose from 37 to 38. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 86 on Saturday, down from 93 on Friday. 22 patients, 22 were on ventilators, down from 23 on Friday. 

The task force will be chaired by Steuart Walton of Bentonville and is to hold its first meeting next week. Walton is the grandson of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton, and a member of the Walmart board of directors. 

The task force will have up to 27 members and will include representatives from a wide range of industry groups, small businesses, outdoor recreation and sports. The task force will also include Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst, Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, and Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward. 

Hutchinson said Walton’s broad background in business made him a good choice to chair the task force.

“I believe he’s the perfect leader for this task force because he’s engaged in the hospitality industry, his family, of course, is in the retail industry, and he is engaged in philanthropy across the state of Arkansas,” Hutchinson said.

Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company that invests in real estate, hospitality and other businesses in Northwest Arkansas. He is the founder and chairman of Bentonville-based Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft. He serves on the board of directors of Walmart, Fkipkart, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

“Arkansas businesses, leaders, and families have already taken extraordinary steps to come together during these past few weeks. With Governor Hutchinson’s leadership, we are united no matter what challenges we may face in the days ahead. I’m eager to work closely with the Governor, his staff, and this task force on Arkansas’ reopening and to position our state as a national leader for economic recovery and success,” Walton noted in a statement sent to Talk Business & Politics.

Other members of the task force are:

Ted Thomas, Public Service Commission
Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce
Sylvester Smith, National Federation of Independent Business
Joey Dean, Associated General Contractors of Arkansas
Annemarie Jazic, Dillard’s Inc.
Charlie Spakes, Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association
Montine McNulty, Arkansas Hospitality Association
Kelly Eichler, Indoor Recreational Facilities
Deke Whitbeck, Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation
Lance Taylor, Arkansas Activities Association
Hunter Yurachek, University of Arkansas
Shannon Newton, Arkansas Trucking Association
Charles Frazier, Rock Region METRO
Lorrie Trogden, Arkansas Bankers Association
Dr. Sonny Tucker, Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention
Bishop Gary Mueller, Arkansas Conference of United Methodists
Bishop Michael Mitchell, African Methodist Episcopal Church 12th District
Dr. Richard Abernathy, Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators
Andy Goodman, Arkansas Independent Colleges and Universities
Andrea Henderson, Arkansas Association of Community Colleges
Dr. Chuck Welch, Arkansas State University System
David Wroten, Arkansas Medical Society
Bo Ryall, Arkansas Hospital Association

Gov. Hutchinson also on Saturday announced $10 million from the Community Development Block Grant program is being directed primarily to rural hospitals suffering financially under the COVID-19 outbreak. The money will go to 27 hospitals in amounts ranging between $250,000 to $500,000. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will receive $500,000 to support its work delivering telehealth into rural areas. 

Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal government allowed states the flexibility to use block grants to respond to the pandemic, Gov. Hutchinson said.