Arkansas judge dismisses lawsuit challenging virus mandates
LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by some Republican legislators challenging a mask mandate and other restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled that Republican Gov.
Asa Hutchinson was within his authority under state law and legislative rules when his administration issued the restrictions. The lawsuit filed by 18 GOP lawmakers argued the restrictions required legislative approval.
Arkansas was among a handful of states that didn't issue a stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic, but Hutchinson has mandated wearing a mask in public and other restrictions including capacity limits on bars and restaurants. Hutchinson on Tuesday ruled out rolling back the state's reopening, despite a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Hutchinson said he was pleased with Griffen's decision, which he said would reassure the public about the state's actions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.
“That quick decision, I think, will clearly give great confidence and will allow us to proceed with the steps that we need to handle this emergency,' Hutchinson told reporters.
Republican Rep. Dan Sullivan, who led the lawsuit effort, said the plaintiffs would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“The plaintiffs here represent all of the people of Arkansas who seek to maintain some control over their own lives pursuant to their God-given rights as recognized in the Constitution, and we're hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree,' he said in a statement.
Arkansas ranks 10th in the country for new virus cases per capita, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The Department of Health on Wednesday reported 1,079 new probable and confirmed cases, bringing the state's total since the pandemic began to 95,246.
The state's COVID-19 fatalities increased by 23 to 1,634. Hospitalizations dropped by 18 to 587, two days after hitting a record high.
Hutchinson said the state has adequate hospital capacity, though he has talked with health officials about increasing capacity if hospitalizations continue to rise. A quarter of the state's 9,120 hospital beds and about 13% of its 1,054 intensive care unit beds are available, according to the Department of Health.
There are 242 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.
The governor also detailed plans to distribute rapid coronavirus tests. The state currently has 100,000 of the Abbott BinaxNOW tests ordered by the federal government and expects to receive 50,000 a week.
Under Hutchinson's plan, more than half of the tests will go to K-12 schools as weekly screenings for staff. Education Secretary Johnny Key said priority for the tests' distribution will be for districts where there have been a high number of cases in the community or in the schools, as well as districts that have had to move to online classes because an outbreak or where numbers indicate a hot spot is developing.
The state's Human Development Centers and the Department of Corrections will each receive 20% of the tests for their employees, while another 5% will be held in reserve for health care workers and others as needed. Hutchinson said election workers will have a priority for the tests at the state's local health offices.
“This is the first time we've developed a plan for sentinel testing, or surveillance testing, that goes beyond simply symptomatic or exposure type testing,' Hutchinson said. “So this is a new world for us that will give us new benefits for this testing.'
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LITTLE ROCK — A Jonesboro man was arraigned in federal court Wednesday after FBI agents claim he produced child pornography, prosecutors announced.
Justin Palmer, 41, was charged on Oct. 8 with two counts of production of child pornography and one count of attempted production of child pornography.
The federal indictment alleges that Palmer successfully got two minors to send him photos or videos of “engaged in sexually explicit conduct” and he attempted to do that same with another child, according to a press release from Cody Hiland, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Palmer’s conduct was revealed by FBI Child Exploitation Task Force agents based in Jonesboro, said Connor Hagen, public affairs officer. The task force partners with state and local agencies to “stop child predators,” he said.
The ongoing probe is being investigated by the FBI, with the Jonesboro Police Internet Crimes Against Children Division and Arkansas State Police Criminal Investigations Company. Palmer was arrested Oct. 9.
“At this point in time, federal investigators have not identified any alleged victims in the Northeast Arkansas area,” Hagan said.
Assistant United States Attorney Allison W. Bragg will be prosecuting the case, he said.
“She’s wonderful. We’re very excited to be partnering with her and hopefully, putting Mr. Palmer away for a number of years for his alleged crimes,” he said.
The FBI is concerned during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as more children are staying home and using several cellphone applications parents may be unaware of, Hagan said.
Because of this “the victim pool” has expanded for predators, he said.
“Predators lurk. They hang out there. They actively seek out minors to … abuse and obtain child pornography. It’s really sickening,” Hagan said. “If parents or other kids think they know of potential threats or potential predators that they’ve encountered, … we urge everyone to come forward.”
If convicted, Palmer faces 15 years to life imprisonment for each charge. The charges also carry a fine up to $250,000 and at least five years of supervised release. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office disclosed where Palmer is being held.
WALCOTT — Nat Clay Farms, Inc. produces rice, wheat, soybeans and corn, and while it was early at the time of this interview for the first three crops, owner Clay Smith was optimistic about his corn crop.
'We are averaging 190-200 bushels per acre,' Smith said on Sept 25. 'The low was 175 and the high was 237.'
Smith, who farms with his father, Terry Smith, said he farms corn on 1,200 acres.
'We are about 90 percent done harvesting,' he said, 'and all we lack is 150 acres.'
Nat Clay Farms, Inc. also produces rice on 600 acres, of which Smith said 100 had been harvested.
He said it was too early to anticipate an average yield for his rice. 'August was hot,' Smith said, 'and we had to irrigate twice.'
Ironically, he said,
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Hurricane Laura, which struck Arkansas as a tropical storm, proved beneficial to his rice crop due to the rain it brought.
'And we were lucky as far as the wind was concerned,'
On the other hand, the cool weather experienced in the latter part of September was not helpful to the rice crop.
Commenting overall on how weather has affected farmers in Northeast Arkansas, Branon Thiesse, Craighead County Cooperative Extension Agent Staff Chair, said wet and cool conditions started in the spring and the wet weather continued after the temperatures warmed up.
“Finally, the rain let up and we were able to complete most of the planting within somewhat normal planting windows,” Thiesse said.
“Some areas received less rain than others, so some were ahead of the game while some were behind.
We had some late rice and soybeans but those fields for the most part seem to have made it to the finish line as well.
“We had some prevented planted acres for some crops due to spring flooding and some crops that were lost due to flooding late in the growing season due to hurricane-related weather. Over all the crops look extremely good in most places but time will tell as the harvest gets into full swing.”
Nat Clay Farms, Inc. also produces soybeans on 800 acres. Although it was weeks before they would be ready to harvest, Smith said the crop was looking good so far.
He added that although the farm will grow wheat on 200 acres, the crop is winter wheat and therefore had yet to be planted. In addition to the acreages, the farm has grain bins with a total capacity of 200,000 bushels.
Nat Clay Farms, Inc. is operated jointly by Smith and his father. Along with his uncle Keith Smith, the farm also employs Nick Newberry as full-time employees, Wesley Laws on a part-time basis, as well as Clay’s wife, Cori.
“She helps us a lot during harvest,” Smith said.
Clay Smith is a member of the National Corn Growers Association, and together with Terry, serves on the board of the Greene County Farm Bureau. Clay also serves on the board of the Greene County Conservation District and is a member of the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance.