Schools ordered closed until April 20
COVID-19 concerns lead to extended suspension of on-campus activities, other restrictions
By RALPH HARDIN
With the number of presumed positive cases of COVID-19 jumping from 22 to 62 in less than 48 hours last week, the closure of all public schools in Arkansas was extended by three weeks last Thursday.
The latest round of confirmed positives for coronavirus in the state resulted in the state announcing new restrictions to slow the spread, including a three-week extension of on-site school closings and an end of on-site restaurant service.
Schools were scheduled to be out of session all this week already due to the Spring Break holiday, with plans to return to classes on Monday, March 30. But after nine counties were added to the list of confirmed cases in the state, making 20, the decision was made to extend the closures. In Jefferson, Pulaski and Cleburne counties, 10 or more cases have been identified. With 146 people being tested and 509 being monitored, the toll is likely to rise.
The majority of new cases were adults, but two children are infected, Health Director Nate Smith said. Only “two or three” people are hospitalized. He said he didn’t have a current number.
The increase is not a surprise, the governor said, but a product of more testing.
“It is clear to me we do have community spread,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson recently visited West Memphis. He said he had resisted making drastic moves in hopes of keeping business going as close to normal as possible.
“Now the state is moving aggressively,” he said last Thursday.
K-12 schools will remain closed an additional three weeks, until April 17, when health conditions will be re-evaluated. Education should continue through alternative methods. Local schools have sent home five-day AMI (alternative method of instruction) packets. Additional packets will be made available for continued school work after Spring Break.
“It is important we not erase this time period from educational instruction,” Hutchinson said.
Other moves made include:
■ ■ State employees will do business by telecommuting and on-site work, but on-site work will be limited to those “necessary for the important functions of government”
■ ■ Hospitals, clinics and mental health facilities are mandated to screen staff and visitors with or temperature and symptoms.
■ ■ Bars and restaurants are now directed to close for dinein service but are allowed to be open for carryout and drive-through and delivery. Here’s the emergency rule change on alcohol. It specifies spirits may not be sold by restaurants, though mixers and setups can be.
■ ■ Indoor facilities such as gyms are closed to non-essential functions.
Hutchinson said the state was trying to reduce the risk of community spread and exposure, particularly of the vulnerable population.
The measures will take place until further notice.
He encouraged businesses to move to telecommuting, video conferencing and remote work wherever possible. They should screen staff and visitors and enforce social distancing. They also should plan for the future with continuity
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of operation plans, he said.
He also issued this general advice, though not a mandate:
■ ■ Older people should stay home to the extent possible.
■ ■ All should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
■ ■ Use drive-through and carryout restaurants, a good health measure and good for business to continue.
■ ■ Avoid unnecessary trips.
■ ■ Enjoy walking, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities consistent with social distancing.
■ ■ Don’t visit nursing homes and similar facilities unless providing critical assistance.
While the governor said he was mindful of religious freedom, he encouraged churches to follow his general advice and find creative ways to deliver messages and minister to congregations as he’s urged businesses to do.
UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson said his campus drive-through screenings are on the rise and about 25 percent of them have called for further testing for the virus.
Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe, in detailing efforts to obtain respirator masks for health workers and other vital equipment, said the state was now in “hand-tohand combat and trench warfare.”
Businesses were encouraged to screen employees, emphasize hand-washing and preventive lotions and space employees to the extent possible.
Education Secretary Johnny Key said the state wasn’t certain about when and if standardized testing would proceed.
Hutchinson urged landlords and utility companies to be compassionate if bills aren’t paid but said that was a private-sector decision.
One idea put forth was to release low-risk prisoners and individuals awaiting trial who could not post bail, an idea Hutchinson did not embrace, saying the state had moved to have safer conditions in prisons.
He said he was not aware of a problem with overcrowding. He said the Board of Correction had emergency powers if there was a need to take action.
Locally, many businesses have closed their doors to the public, including the Evening Times offices.