Walking a tightrope

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 567 views 

This month may prove in the long run to be the most significant time period so far in our state’s efforts to battle the COVID-19 virus.

We hear the numbers every day in terms of the human toll the virus is taking — as of mid-May, there were over 4,300 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases with nearly 100 deaths in Arkansas. But also in the news every day is a steady stream of information about the toll that the virus and the measures taken to control it are taking on the economy and the workers who have lost their livelihoods.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not issue a general stay-at-home order, he closed public school buildings, limited restaurants to take-out and delivery only, closed movie theaters, hair salons and other businesses, and limited indoor gatherings to less than 10 people.

In late April, the governor lifted restrictions on elective surgeries, and by early May said restaurants, fitness centers, barber and beauty shops and what were termed “larger venues” could reopen with restrictions in place.

The state had not previously issued restrictions on places of worship but had recommended they limit person-to-person contact and observe the social distancing rule of 6 feet of separation. Additional guidelines were recommended on May 4.
Arkansans, though, are generally social to begin with, and church is a place where many folks do their socializing, so staying 2 yards away from each other hasn’t been practical. In the alternative, some churches are streaming their services held in virtually empty facilities to get their message out.

The social media platforms are full these days of clever memes, anecdotes and jokes about how Americans are coping with being cooped up in their homes with their families. We’ve seen in the newspapers and on TV how some folks aren’t coping well at all, taking to the streets to protest the limitations on their freedom of movement that government has enacted, even if temporary.

Maybe some protesters don’t like the idea of the government dictating to them; perhaps others feel they’ve been indoors long enough and this is all silliness. Some may even think the whole thing is a communist plot to fell the mightiest of the mighty economies.

The state of Missouri has gone so far as to sue China, claiming it is responsible for the death, suffering and economic losses that Chinese leaders foisted on the world, including citizens of Missouri. Some people in Congress have advocated such a lawsuit, which has zero chance of going anywhere but it may make somebody in Missouri feel better. It seems that if that tactic would work, the Feds would have already tried it themselves.

No doubt, the citizens of every state are growing weary of the restrictions put in place to try to stop the spread of the virus. Certainly, they’ve made their elected officials deeply aware of their weariness, not just of staying in the house, but for many, staying in the house without a job.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended her executive order on closures, but eased some restrictions such as those prohibiting golfing and going boating in watercraft with motors. In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt has allowed hair salons, barbershops, spas, nail salons and pet groomers to reopen. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was among the first to reopen his state’s economy.

Rather than resorting to litigation, Hutchinson has taken what by all appearances is a measured approach to reopening the state’s economy. Certainly, he appreciates the fact that the state’s businesses and their employees — not to mention the state’s coffers — are taking big hits. But he has also demonstrated that the state will take the necessary measures to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases. For example, on the last weekend in April, the state conducted a campaign to cause a “surge” in the number of Arkansans tested for the virus.

Hutchinson has said that while he wants Arkansas’ economy to open up, the decisions must be driven by the data. Obviously, the more quickly the economy can get back to whatever normal is in the post-pandemic world, the better for employers and employees alike. But Hutchinson seems rightly to be concerned that opening up too quickly could cause a “surge” the wrong way, with the virus coming back with a vengeance, taking more Arkansans’ lives and forcing another shutdown, further damaging the economy.

Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin believes that the damage the virus has already done will be reflected in the city’s sales tax collections for April, May and likely beyond.

“We’ll be down the rest of the year in my opinion,” said Perrin.

He noted that a tornado that struck Jonesboro on March 28 did major damage to The Mall at Turtle Creek, a shopping center that serves the region, which will have an effect on sales tax revenues. That tornado also damaged aircraft and infrastructure at the Jonesboro Municipal Airport.

Perrin said that the Arkansas Municipal League has calculated that cities may see a more than 25% reduction in revenue strictly because of the effects of the virus on the economy. He seemed to appreciate the tightrope that Hutchinson must walk, balancing the need to protect the health of the state’s citizens while trying to get the economy back in gear.

“You can’t play politics,” Perrin said.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.