Arkansas to require face masks to combat coronavirus surge

ANDREW DeMILLO

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an order Thursday requiring people to wear face masks in public throughout the state, which has had a surge in coronavirus cases over the past several weeks.

The Republican governor had resisted a statewide mask mandate and opposed issuing a stay-at-home order earlier in the pandemic, but he signed the order requiring masks when social distancing isn't possible in the hopes of slowing the disease's rapid spread in the state. The order takes effect Monday.

Hutchinson said the state's rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths show that more needs to be done to combat the virus' spread. He also said adults needs to set the right example for the state's schoolchildren, many of whom will be required to wear masks when in-person classes resume next month.

“This whole fight against COVID-19 is likely to get harder and not easier, and we have to meet the challenge together. Everyone must do their part," Hutchinson said. “This is a way to enlist the support of everyone in this fight."

Hutchinson’s decision comes amid growing support for mask requirements from business and health leaders and a day after Bentonville-based Walmart said it would require customers to wear masks in all of its U.S. stores. The state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, also called for a statewide requirement on Thursday.

Hutchinson previously encouraged people to wear masks and allowed cities to pass ordinances requiring their use, but he stopped short of requiring them statewide. He’s the latest Republican governor to relent on the mask issue in the face of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Alabama's governor issued a similar mask mandate on Wednesday.

Arkansas' coronavirus cases have dramatically risen since May, when the state began allowing businesses that had closed because of the pandemic to reopen despite warnings from federal health officials about the risks of doing so too soon. Arkansas was one of a handful of states that did not issue a broad stay-at-home order to keep most businesses closed.

Hutchinson announced the order as the state reported one of its biggest single-day increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases. The Health Department on Thursday added 817 new confirmed cases to the state's overall tally 31,114 since the pandemic started. It also raised the state's death toll by six, to 341, and added 12 more patients to the number of people currently hospitalized with the disease, for a total of 470.

The order includes several exemptions, including people younger than 10 years old or those engaged in religious worship, despite worship services being identified as sources of outbreaks in Arkansas and elsewhere. Violators could face a fine of up to $500. The order prohibits law enforcement from detaining or arresting anyone for not complying, and says first-time violators will only receive a verbal or written warning.

The order also allows the state to exempt counties that the Health Department has certified as having a low risk of transmission. Hutchinson said that would be defined as counties that have had no positive cases for 28 days and have adequate testing capability. It was unclear whether any counties currently could be exempted under that provision.

Hutchinson previously questioned how a mask mandate could be enforced in a rural state such as Arkansas, but this week he left open the possibility of such a requirement. The chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences called for a statewide requirement last weekend.

“This is the right decision and will flatten the curve and save lives in Arkansas as we fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson tweeted moments after Hutchinson's announcement.

Hutchinson's order was expected to face criticism from some conservatives in the solidly Republican state. Hours before Hutchinson's announcement, Republican state Sen. Bob Ballinger urged people to call the governor to oppose a mask mandate.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a Republican running to succeed Hutchinson as governor in 2022, said he disagreed with penalizing people for not wearing a mask.

“People should wear masks and follow the guidance of health experts to decrease the spread of the virus, but I don't think the failure to wear a mask should be criminalized,” Griffin said.

Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who is also running for governor, encouraged using masks but stopped short of saying whether she agreed with the order.

“It is imperative that we all take the exponential spread of this deadly disease seriously not only for the safety of family, friends and neighbors, but we must also reopen our schools and get our economy back to its full strength moving our country away from this virus and back to exercising our God given freedoms," she said.

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Follow all of AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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