Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (May 5) extended a statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration for another 45 days, while warning that a new wave of prison cases was likely to come from a federal unit in Forrest City and possibly a state prison in southeast Arkansas.
Hutchinson also loosened restrictions to allow for out-of-state travelers to soon come to Arkansas hotels, lodges and state parks.
At his daily briefing, the governor announced he was extending his emergency order, set to expire on May 21, for another 45 days, although the law allowed him to extend for another 60 days. The move keeps all current guidelines and directives in place. Hutchinson explained why he only sought a 45 day extension instead of another 60 days.
“I chose not to do that to give us a measuring point 45 days later,” Hutchinson said. “Then, it will be a good time to reflect on where we are.”
Dr. Nate Smith, Secretary of the Department of Health, disclosed that a new round of testing was being conducted at the Cummins Prison Unit in southeast Arkansas. He said two barracks, which could include up to 100 state prisoners, were being tested due to symptoms among the inmates. Already, 876 cases were previously reported at Cummins.
At a federal corrections institution in Forrest City where 264 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, the governor and health officials warned that new testing has resulted in additional 92 cases that are not factored into Arkansas’ overall numbers yet.
Arkansas has 1,064 active cases and has reported a total of 3,496 since tracking began. Hospitalizations are down two to 89 from a day ago and there are still 16 patients on ventilators in state. The number of deaths increased by two to 83, while recoveries rose by 34 to 2,050 overnight.
The U.S. has a reported 1,171,510 COVID-19 cases of which 19,138 are new. There have been 68,279 Americans who have died from the virus, up 823 deaths from a day ago. Worldwide, there have been 3,630,942 COVID-19 cases with 254,952 deaths from the disease.
Forty-five nursing home facilities in Arkansas have one or more resident or staff with COVID-19. That translates to 409 residents and staff members infected and there have been 32 nursing home-related deaths.
Dr. Smith said the state’s contact tracing program would be key to containing outbreaks in the future as Arkansas begins to re-open for business. Smith said the department has traced about two-thirds of new cases to origins that include regions of the country or those already infected. He said current cases of unknown origins are about one-third of all cases, a metric he wants to see reduced to 10%.
MORE RESTRICTIONS TO LIFT
Gov. Hutchinson and Stacy Hurst, Secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, announced that plans are in place to lift restrictions on out-of-state travelers to come to Arkansas. The move is aimed at allowing out-of-state travelers to come to state parks, lodges, hotels and motels.
There will be restrictions for travelers coming from hot spots of the U.S., now defined as Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and New Orleans. To come to Arkansas, those visitors must self-quarantine for 14 days, but there is no enforcement mechanism on this restriction. Hurst said businesses impacted by lifting the restriction would need to meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health protocols. Recommendations from national hotel and motel chains were also under consideration.
“It’s an industry that has been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As an industry, they have strong protocols in place to protect guests as well as their staffs,” Hurst said in the briefing. “We will work to get this message out to our stakeholders broadly and clearly, and we’ll certainly answer any questions they have.”
Late last week, Hutchinson announced that state parks could re-open on May 1 with an expansion of services by May 15. Today’s directive will allow for out-of-state visitors to stay overnight in Arkansas facilities.
Hutchinson also reported that guidance would be forthcoming by the end of this week to allow fitness centers and gyms to re-open lap lane pools and recreational pools.