Lawmakers Sue Over COVID-19 Restrictions; State Reports 969 New Cases


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A group of Republican lawmakers in Arkansas filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the state's mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions, even as the state reported one of its highest one-day increases in virus cases and deaths.

The 18 lawmakers asked a judge to rule that the Health Department's directives issued since the pandemic began are invalid. They argue the orders require legislative approval.

“This is a serious illness. Why would we not include the Legislature?" said Rep. Dan Sullivan, one of the lawmakers who filed the suit. Sullivan said the lawsuit was funded by money raised by two groups, the Northeast Arkansas Tea Party and Reopen Arkansas, which opposes many of the virus restrictions on businesses.

Arkansas was among a handful of states that didn't issue a stay-at-home order, but it has dozens of other restrictions in place that include the mask requirement and capacity limits on bars and restaurants.

A White House task force has recommended the state go further because of a high rate of positive tests, calling for it to close bars and impose other restrictions. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has rejected those recommendations.

Hutchinson said it's unrealistic to delay health guidelines for weeks as they go through legislative review in the middle of an emergency. He said his administration has been following rules the Legislature has approved giving the Health Department authority to act during an emergency.

“When people are dying, you don't need delay," Hutchinson told reporters. “You need quick action.”

The Department of Health reported 969 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the state's total since the pandemic began to 63,081. The state also reported an additional 59 positives from antigen testing.

The department said 5,331 of its cases are active ones that don't include people who have died or recovered. The state reported 20 new deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, bringing its total fatalities to 861.

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The highest number of new cases, 211, came from Washington County, where the University of Arkansas is located. Jose Romero, the state's health secretary, said 81% of Washington County's new cases were from among people who were 18 to 24 years old. The university has said it has nearly 400 active cases on its Fayetteville campus.

Romero said he remained concerned about college students not following health guidelines especially as they head into the Labor Day weekend.

“This will increase significantly more if it's not brought under control now," Romero said.

State Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves also announced Thursday that the prison system will next month begin a phased reopening of in-person visitation with inmates. Graves said plans for the reopening are being finalized but will likely include symptom screenings for visitors, reduced visitation numbers and staggered visitation dates to allow for social distancing.

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