One day after leading a fleet of World War II-era airplanes on a daylong flyover tour of Arkansas, Bentonville entrepreneur Steuart Walton appeared on the morning show “Fox and Friends” on Sunday (May 10) to discuss the trip. He also answered questions related to his role as chairman of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force.
Walton said the idea for a flyover came from a friend of his in New York following a flyover there organized by the U.S Navy’s Blue Angels, who are conducting a series of multi-city flyovers as part of its America Strong tour to salute doctors, nurses and other essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We started thinking about whether we could do something similar in the state of Arkansas in recognition of some of the steps we have taken to reopen the state, but really to recognize the frontline workers and people who have been working around the clock seven days a week to take care of folks who have fallen ill with the virus,” Walton told “Fox and Friends” host Pete Hesgeth. “We had a perfect weather day, too.”
The four-plane fleet consisted of a Goodyear F2G Super Corsair 1944 piloted by Walton and three North American P-51 Mustangs. Walton owns the airplanes, and the Super Corsair is the only one in the world still operational.
The airplanes departed Bentonville’s Thaden Field at 8 a.m. Saturday for a tour across the state. They flew two loops around more than a dozen of the state’s largest cities at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. After departing Bentonville the flight path included Springdale, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Russellville, Conway, Little Rock, Hot Springs, Texarkana, El Dorado, Pine Bluff, Searcy, Newport, Jonesboro, Mountain Home, Harrison and Rogers.
Walton went on to describe Arkansas’ efforts to reopen portions of the economy. In the past several days, Gov. Hutchinson has announced new guidelines for reopening a number of businesses including restaurants, fitness centers, barbershops, beauty parlors and water parks. He has also given the go-ahead for hospitals and dentists to resume certain procedures that had been prohibited temporarily as a result of the COVID-19 emergency.
“There’s no playbook for this and we are really trying to take safe steps but important steps to reopening the economy,” Walton said.
Walton indicated he would not be hesitant about returning to restaurants, which can begin limited dine-in service on Monday. Among the restrictions are no groups over 10 people, daily staff screenings, staff must wear gloves and face masks and social distancing must be followed.
Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company that invests in real estate, hospitality and other businesses in Northwest Arkansas. One of those businesses is Ropeswing Hospitality Group, which operates a number of restaurants in Bentonville. Walton’s younger brother, Tom Walton, is the managing principal of that enterprise.
Ropeswing is planning to reopen its restaurants on Monday, while others are waiting. Appearing on Sunday’s episode of “Talk Business & Politics,” Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, also acknowledged there is a big split in the restaurant community as some operators are still skeptical of contagion.
“With respect to restaurants, it’s going to be a different experience than we are all used to,” Walton said. “But, I can tell you I am very excited, to have somebody ask me ‘What would you like to drink?’ It’s been too long.”
Walton also addressed a question from Hesgeth about a perceived double standard that allows large retailers like Walmart, Target, Home Depot and others to remain open, while other “mom-and-pop” stores that sell many of the same products are closed.
Walton is a grandson of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton. He’s also been a member of the retailer’s board of directors since June 2016.
“I’m not so sure that’s right,” Walton said about the idea of a double standard. “Walmart provides an essential service. We’re the largest grocer in the country, and I think it’s incredibly essential that we are open. With respect to the smaller stores, in Arkansas, we never actually closed non-essential retail. Retailers can stay open if possible. The problem is demand. This crisis is a health crisis but it has spawned an economic crisis. And the economic crisis is as much about demand as it is about government regulation and closing businesses down.
“It’s really complex to manage through this. At the same time, I am proud of the way Arkansas is approaching it. It’s data-driven, it’s nuanced. But it’s a difficult situation.”
Walton agreed “100%” with Hesgeth’s closing comment that every business and job is essential to the person who has it.
You can watch Walton’s entire interview at this link.