Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday issued a statewide face mask order. It goes into effect on Monday.
The governor made the announcement during his daily briefing on the state's coronavirus response. The state Department of Health reported 817 new COVID-19 cases.
Hutchinson said he'll sign an executive order outlining the mandate. Violating the order would be a misdemeanor and carry a $100 to $500 fine.
"This is the best opportunity we have to get life back to normal," he said.
Hutchinson had resisted calls for a statewide mandate. But on Thursday, he said the rise of positive cases, the opinions of health care workers and legislators and the return of children to school this fall figured into his decision. Many school districts are asking faculty, staff and students to wear masks for in-person instruction.
"[If] you think about it, 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.
The order says Arkansans should wear face coverings on the mouth and nose in all indoor and outdoor places where they are exposed to non-household members and distancing of 6 feet or more cannot be assured.
The order says law enforcement and "local officials" have authority to enforce the directive. It said first-time violators will receive a verbal or written warning, and no official "may detain, arrest, or confine in jail" someone for violating the order.
On Twitter, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson praised Hutchinson's order. Patterson had called for a statewide mandate during an appearance on Arkansas PBS' "Arkansas Week" on Friday. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opinion page editors called for an order in Thursday's newspaper.
"Thanks to [Asa Hutchinson] for issuing a statewide face coverings executive order," Patterson wrote. "This is the right decision and will flatten the curve and save lives in Arkansas as we fight against the COVID-19 pandemic."
Hutchinson had said previously that he didn't want to install a mask order "that is unenforceable." But he eventually endorsed a model ordinance cities could adopt that requires masks in public places that does not contain penalties for violations, and several cities approved that ordinance. Hutchinson said his statewide mandate supersedes local ordinances.
On Wednesday, the same day Walmart Inc. of Bentonville decided to mandate masks across all its U.S. stores and Alabama's Republican governor issued her own statewide mandate, Hutchinson said his administration was continuing to evaluate an order.
The governor talked through his previous opposition on Thursday.
"First of all, I resisted for many months a mask mandate because I don't believe that government coercion should be the first thing that you turn to," he said. "I was hesitant about that, and we looked at other alternatives, including education."
Hutchinson said a mandate wouldn't have been enforceable or accepted by the public earlier in the pandemic.
"Broad acceptance allows this to be enforceable and acceptable to the public," he said. He said the state had built that acceptance through education and industry practices and would continue building it by requiring masks in schools when they reopen.
The governor said people are exempt from the mandate if they:
- Are younger than 10;
- Have a medical condition or disability that prevents mask wearing;
- Are performing a job where distancing is not achievable but mask wearing is inhibitory to performing the job safely and effectively;
- Are participating in athletic activities where distancing is not achievable but mask wearing is inhibitory;
- Are consuming food or drink;
- Are driving alone or with passengers from their household;
- Are receiving services that require access to the face;
- Are voting, assisting voters, poll watching or performing other election administration duties (the governor said he would look more closely at the exemption for non-voters here, before his order is finalized);
- Are engaging in religious worship activities;
- Are giving a speech or performance;
- Are in counties where the Department of Health has certified that the risk of community transmission of the virus is low.
817 New Cases
The order came on a day when state health officials reported 817 new coronavirus cases. Hospitalizations rose by 12 to 470, and six more Arkansans died from COVID-19. A total of 31,114 cases have been recorded, and 341 people have died.
Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells also spoke at Thursday's briefing. He said the Baptist Health Center for Clinical Research is beginning a Phase III trial for a COVID-19 vaccine. Arkansans can visit arkansascovidvaccine.com to see if they qualify to participate in that trial.
Wells also spoke about intensive care unit capacity in the state. He said Baptist has 11 hospitals throughout Arkansas, about 1,500 acute care beds and about 200 ICU beds.
One month ago, Baptist saw its highest ICU census since the pandemic began. On June 18, it had 181 ICU patients, and 16 of those had COVID-19. On Thursday, it had 161 ICU patients, and 32 of those had COVID-19. So the number of COVID-19 ICU patients has doubled in one month.
At all Baptist hospitals, 89 COVID-19 patients are being treated; that’s also doubled in a month, he said.
Baptist has 19 COVID-19 patients on ventilators, but Wells said Baptist has plenty of capacity there, and he believes that's the case throughout Arkansas.
Wells also said Arkansas' large hospitals typically ran at 80% to 95% ICU capacity on any given day before the pandemic.