Decision set for next week on possible regional reopening of Arkansas economy

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,330 views 

On a day that new COVID-19 cases again pushed higher, Gov. Asa Hutchinson seemed open to reverse his previous stance on reopening the state economy by saying it is possible some regions of the state could move to phase two before others.

The governor began his Thursday (June 4) daily COVID-19 briefing by noting the George Floyd memorial service being held in Minneapolis. Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“I wanted to join, really, all those across the nation in expressing our respect for his life and for the reminder that his life gives us in the importance of equal justice and equal treatment under the laws,” Gov. Hutchinson said.

Back on the COVID-19 front, the number of new cases and deaths continues to rise. Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 8,425 on Thursday, up from 8,067 on Tuesday. Of the 358 new cases, two were from correctional facilities. Of the total cases, 2,355 are active cases, 43 are in correctional facilities and 95 in nursing homes. The number of deaths rose from 142 to 151. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 137 on Thursday, down from 138 on Tuesday. There are 32 patients on ventilators, up from 30 on Wednesday. There are 5,919 Arkansans who have recovered.

As of Thursday at 1 p.m., there were 1,860,8907 U.S. cases and 107,474 deaths. Globally, there were 6,570,362 cases and 387,634 deaths.

Of the 356 new community cases, 57% were in Northwest Arkansas, with 111 in Washington County and 92 in Benton County. Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith also said 45% of the total COVID-19 deaths are from the Northwest region of the state, which includes a large area that stretches south to Scott and Yell counties, and east to Baxter and Conway counties. That region was responsible for 65.4% of all new cases reported Thursday.

Smith also said 50% of the new cases are among people with Spanish surnames.

Looking for a bright side, Gov. Hutchinson noted the 5.2% positivity rate among the 4,358 tests conducted in the previous 24 hours. In the past five days prior to Thursday’s report, the rate has been 4.8%, 5.4%, 9.6%, 6.4% and 9.1%.

“I like our positivity rate and that’s something that should be encouraging to us as we test more and more. Our positivity rate is staying fairly consistent there,” he said.

Just two days after he said it would not be “appropriate to open up into phase two until we have more data and have more confidence,” Gov. Hutchinson said Thursday he is open to the idea of some state regions moving to phase two before others. The governor said he was on a call earlier Thursday with business leaders who were asking about a move to phase two.

Phase two would allow fewer restrictions for business openings. For example, restaurants – the most impacted by COVID-19 rules – could expand from 33% to 66% of building capacity in phase 2. Phase two is an option for “states and regions with no evidence of a rebound and that satisfy the gating criteria for a second time,” according to White House guidelines.

In response to media questions, Gov. Hutchinson acknowledged that a regional approach to phase two reopening is something he will consider.

“That’s a possibility. … Are we testing enough in southeast Arkansas? We want to look at that factor. We want to look at the trend line more carefully. You know, if it’s a flat trend line, and they meet the criteria for going into phase two, it’s hard to hold them back,” the governor said.

However, he said once a state or region moves into a new phase, it’s hard to change direction. He again noted that Northwest Arkansas business leaders wanted to move to phase two just days before the COVID-19 spike hit the area.

“Once you go into a new phase, it’s hard to roll it back. And so we just want to be careful and make the right judgment there. But that’s something that we’re looking at, and we’ll make a decision on that next week,” he said.

Following is Gov. Hutchinson’s response when asked why he is now willing to consider a regional approach instead of his previous statewide stance on reopening the economy: “Because we want to get to phase two. It’s important to get there and we’re not ready to go there yet as a state. But it requires us to ask the question, under these gating criteria, ‘Has other areas, certain regions of our state, met that criteria?’ While we stay together, I think you have to ask the question at some point do we want to release one region to go to phase two.”

Prior to Gov. Hutchinson discussing the regional approach, Smith said phase one rules have kept COVID-19 at “a manageable level in terms of hospitalizations.”

It was also announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was awarding $2.553 million to Arkansas hospitals and other healthcare operations to train workforces, procure supplies and equipment, and expand telemedicine in response to COVID-19.

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