Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has opposed mandates for wearing masks, said Friday (July 3) he has signed an executive order allowing cities to adopt a “model ordinance” requiring mask use. The ordinance was drafted in coordination with the Arkansas Municipal League (AML).
The ordinance order follows growing questions about a mask mandate resulting from a rise in known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, with a one-day record set Thursday and Friday setting a new record for active cases. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday reversed course on his policy and has mandated mask use in counties with more than 20 COVID cases.
The model ordinance “requires the usage of facial coverings as recommended by the Department of Health.”
“Let me emphasize that this is a local option. No one is mandated to do it. It is an option for cities to give them more flexibility if they have a community in which they might have a surge in cases,” Gov. Hutchinson said during his daily COVID briefing.
Fayetteville and Little Rock have already issued mask ordinances. The Fayetteville ordinance went beyond the governor’s public health guidelines, with Gov. Hutchinson deciding to not take action against the Northwest Arkansas city. Little Rock’s ordinance followed language in the governor’s health order.
John Wilkerson, AML general counsel, said the ordinance also is “geared toward supporting local businesses, who, as we have seen, have had challenges in enforcing the requirement to wear a mask.” Language in the ordinance notes that law enforcement officers “will act in a support capacity to local businesses that wish to enforce the use of masks upon their premises.” However, there is no penalty provision in the ordinance. Wilkerson said penalties were debated, but it was decided that “educating and informing is the most measured approach right now.”
Gov. Hutchinson said he previously opposed mask mandates because he first wanted to educate citizens about the need for mask, and because he didn’t want “500 different (mask) ordinances” around the state. He pointed to recent poll conducted by the Gilmore Strategy Group showing 82% of respondents “wear personal protective equipment like a mask in public places” as an indicator that most citizens are now educated about mask use. The poll, conducted June 29-30 among 600 likely voters, showed that 16% did not wear a mask. The top reasons given by respondents for not wearing masks is they are ineffective and that the virus is a hoax.
The AML ordinance avoids the chances of numerous different ordinances around the state, the governor added.
When asked about the need for an ordinance if 82% of Arkansas really are wearing masks, Gov. Hutchinson said the ordinance is simply an “additional tool that the cities can utilize.” He also said he is open to ordinance adjustments if necessary.
The Gilmore Strategy Group and the Runway Group, which commissioned the poll, declined to share full poll results with Talk Business & Politics.
COVID CASES, WEEKEND WARNING
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 22,622 on Friday, up from 21,197 on Thursday. Of the 547 new community cases, 182 were from correctional facilities. There are 6,177 active cases, another new record. The number of deaths rose from 277 to 281. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 285 on Friday, up from 272 on Thursday. There are 70 patients on ventilators, up from 69 on Thursday. Of the known cases since March 11, 16,164 have recovered.
Of the 365 new community cases, 63.5% were from Washington County (84), Benton County (74), and Pulaski County (74).
As of Friday at 1 p.m., there were 2,760,664 U.S. cases and 128,951 deaths. Globally, there were 10,931,638 cases and 522,618 deaths.
Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said Arkansans should be careful during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. He noted that Arkansas had 1,063 active COVID cases prior to Memorial Day, and now has 6,177 active cases going into this weekend. He said the rise in cases results in a higher chance of contracting the virus.
“Things you might have gotten away with over Memorial Day weekend are going to be riskier this weekend. So it’s more important this weekend to take those precautions to prevent COVID-19 spread,” Smith said.