Editor’s note: The story is updated with changes and additions throughout.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday (July 16) issued a statewide mandate requiring the use of a face mask, citing the rising number of cases and input from healthcare workers, legislators and others who said it is necessary to address the spread of COVID-19.
The mandate will become effective July 20, and comes after Walmart, Kroger, Best Buy, Starbucks and a growing list of other retailers have in recent days issued rules saying customers must wear facial covering while in their stores.
“I have listened to doctors and nurses who are on the front line in this fight against COVID-19, and they ask the public to do more,” he said. “I’ve heard from legislators that have a lot of different views. But many of them simply say, ‘I don’t like it, but whatever it takes, let’s get through this and give us the best chance for normal activities in the future.’”
He also said a mask mandate is the right move considering mask requirements for students going back to school.
“If you’re going to ask the children in the school setting to wear face coverings for everyone’s health and safety, then the adults must help them to be ready and set the right example for them,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson called it a “fair question” to wonder what has changed from his previous belief that a mask mandate wouldn’t work because it would be unenforceable. He said what has changed is broader “acceptance” of masks and their benefit in containing the virus.
“If you’re going to have a mandate or a law or a requirement, there has to be some level of acceptance for that. Through the course of time we have built that acceptance through education, through practice of industry, and, as I’ve said, we are going to be moving in to where it is in the school system. So, broad acceptance allows this to be enforceable and acceptable by the public,” he said.
Acting Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said the Arkansas Department of Health welcomes the mask mandate.
“We are excited that this is going into place. Masks have been shown to substantially decrease the transmission of COVID and are an essential part of the armamentarium against this disease,” he said.
MANDATE RULES, EXEMPTIONS
According to information provided in the briefing, masks will be required in indoor and outdoor settings where exposed to non-household members and social distancing of six feet or more is not assured.
First-time violators will receive a written warning, and those under 18 years of age will “only receive” a verbal or written warning. A written violation is a misdemeanor offense, with up to a $500 fine. Also, law enforcement may not detain or jail any person who violates the order. The order does not prevent law enforcement from “enforcing trespassing laws or other applicable laws in removing violators at the request of businesses or other property owners.”
Following were the cited exemptions to wearing a mask.
• 10 years of age or younger
• Medical exemption that prevents wearing a face covering
• Where a mask prevents safe performance of job
• Athletic activities in which a mask would inhibit the activity
• When consuming food or drink
• Driving alone or with a passenger from the driver’s home
• Receiving services that require access to the face for security or other surveillance reasons
• Voting, assisting voters, serving as poll watchers or other election site duties
• Engaged in religious worship
• Giving a speech or performance for broadcast to an audience
The mandate will also exempt counties “where the Department of Health has certified that risk of community transmission of COVID-19 is low.” An example, the governor noted, is if a county has no new positive cases for 28 days. (A link to the official order will be provided when it is made available.)
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 31,114 on Thursday, up from 30,297 on Wednesday. Of the 817 new cases, 81 were from correctional facilities. There are 6,578 active cases. The number of deaths rose from 335 to 341. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 470 on Thursday, up from 458 on Wednesday. There are 101 patients on ventilators, up from 94 on Wednesday. Of the known cases since March 11, 24,195 have recovered.
The top five counties for new infections were Pulaski (114), Washington (68), Benton (48), Sebastian (43), and Pope (40). The five counties accounted for 42.5% of 736 new community cases reported Wednesday.
As of Thursday at 1 p.m., there were 3,499,771 U.S. cases and 137,846 deaths. Globally, there were 13,637,917 cases and 585,906 deaths.