With the city of Fort Smith returning to more normal operations, county and city officials are reminding residents to continue with safety and prevention measures such as social distancing and wearing face masks.
Though no state has met the White House “gating” criteria to begin reopening, Arkansas and many other states are phasing in business reopenings. City officials believe it is time to start the process of returning to normal.
“My main concern is if the frustration many people are feeling due to distancing, not getting out to work or shop, the worries about the economy, and the loss of their jobs. This impacts everyone’s mental health which can result in emotional or physical outbursts that are normally something a person would not feel or do,” said City Administrator Carl Geffken.
City office employees who have been working from home as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic will return to the office Monday (May 11), marking a return to the city almost returning to business as usual. City offices will remain closed to the public through May, though the collections and customer service area at 623 Garrison Ave. have been open during the pandemic, Geffken said.
“Most of the office staff have been at work and the return to a more normal, in-office work environment for those who were working at home may cause some concern. However, we will work with our employees, provide PPE and hand sanitizer if not already in place, and keep our buildings closed through May,” Geffken said. “I am confident it is time (to return to business as usual). As areas of the economy slowly, methodically, and logically reopen, we see our residents and employees maintaining social distancing and hand-washing. We are following and will continue to follow the governor’s and secretary of health’s directives.”
‘LET’S BE PATIENT’
With Arkansas restaurants allowed to resume dining-in services Monday (May 11), many in Fort Smith have made adjustments and are ready for their limited openings. Libby Meyer, a member of the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association, said during a press conference concerning a COVID-19 update Friday (May 8) that a majority of the downtown restaurants will resume dining-in operations Monday.
Meyer specifically mentioned the 5th Street Café would open with limited seating; 21 West End would have all dining rooms open but would be reservation only; and AJ’s Oyster House would be opening its patio and courtyard for Chargrill Thursday for diners. Most restaurants will continue curb-side takeout options, she added.
With the gradual reopening of businesses, Mayor George McGill cautioned residents with becoming lax in their efforts to maintain proper precautions.
“We are still in a health pandemic. If we still continue to practice the things that we have been practicing, Fort Smith and Arkansas will continue to be a shining example of what the nation should be doing as they address these issues. Again, this thing can be long term. So let’s be patient with those in charge, let’s be patient with the officials and we will get through this,” McGill said.
Responding to any who think the city and the state might be moving too quickly, McGill said he and healthcare professionals advising the city and county believe Arkansas is moving at the appropriate pace.
“I think we can clearly see that we are maybe over the peak. At current time, we have ample hospital capacity, we have ample testing materials, and for all indications, we are headed in the right direction,” McGill said. “Again, with all of this said, there is always the possibility of resurgence. And we don’t want that to happen. As we begin to get the yellow light the caution lights to reopen, … we want these things to continue to stay open and to progress to full openings. So we don’t want to do anything to turn us around.”
Dr. Brian Clardy, a physician with the University of Arkansas for Medical Science in Fort Smith, vice-chief of staff for Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Sebastian County Medical Officer, said there are four or fewer active COVID-19 cases in Sebastian County as of Thursday (May 7). The two Fort Smith hospitals, Mercy-Fort Smith and Baptist, have given a combined 2,500 tests either through the hospitals or at the testing facility at Ben Geren Regional Park. This does not include the number of tests administered at free-standing clinics or at the new testing facility at Fort Smith Park.
Of the tests given, there have been 24 positive results in Sebastian County, Clardy said, noting the number for Sebastian County is incorrect on the Arkansas Department of Health dashboard because some of the county’s results have been recorded in the missing county category. There are no patients with COVID-19 in either Fort Smith hospital, he said.
“I’ve delivered a lot of good news today regarding the impact locally of the COVID-19 virus, and I believe we need to safely begin getting our community active again. What does that mean? We can’t really lose our vigilance,” Clardy said.
Residents need to continue to frequently hand sanitizer and wash hands properly; minimize trips to the public spaces; and use of a mask, either cloth or hospital grade, in public spaces. Clardy noted that face masks need to cover the nose. There needs to be appropriate use of Plexiglas shields for public engagement in retail establishments; sanitizing of touch surfaces, like grocery carts; screening at the entrance of public buildings concerning symptoms, temperature and questions; protect and support for at-risk citizens; and social distancing, he said.
“And I can’t emphasize this next one enough: Don’t go to work sick. Your boss will be much madder at you if you bring COVID-19 into your workplace, Clardy said. “We are fortunate that the citizens of Arkansas have been responsible in regards to listening to and acting upon the recommendations and requests of state and local leaders. Are we doing a perfect job? No. But we really don’t have to. We just have to get the curve bent to the point that this will start to die out, and we appear to be doing that. In this situation, most people simply doing their best to protect themselves and others around them will continue to add up to continued local success in the management of this pandemic. I would urge everyone to continue to take care of yourself and your neighbors.”
City officials say they need the input of residents to understand the problems surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, identify solutions and prioritize funding. So, the City of Fort Smith has created a survey to determine needs for an allocation of $530,840 in CDBG-CV funds for the specific use to prevent, prepare and respond to the coronavirus.
They are asking anyone who is a citizen of Fort Smith, sits on a city board, commission or committee or owns a business in Fort Smith, “particularly the organizations that serve … low to moderate income citizens,” complete the survey based on their calls for assistance.
The survey will close May 17. Link here to complete the survey.