Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday that he supports an executive order by Little Rock's mayor requiring the city's residents to wear masks in public, saying he interprets it as an "encouragement."
"Actually one of the words used is 'exhortation,'" Hutchinson said. "But it's an encouragement to wear a mask, and I fully support that encouragement.
"It's consistent with the guidelines that we've issued."
Hutchinson spoke as the state's number of coronavirus cases rose by 678, including a one-day record of 669 new cases that were not among prison or jail inmates.
The state's number of virus deaths, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by seven, to 249, while the overall count of cases rose to 18,740.
The number of patients hospitalized with the virus remained at 284.
Sixty-three of the patients were on ventilators, down from 66 a day earlier.
Those hospitalized included the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the Nashville School District, the superintendent, Doug Graham, said in an email.
He said the assistant superintendent is on a ventilator and that several other school district employees have tested positive.
Hutchinson also said Friday that he had directed the state's 16 Alcoholic Beverage Control agents to be on the lookout for violations of Health Department rules at restaurants and bars.
Those rules, for instance, require the seats at each table to be at least 6 feet away from those of other tables and for customers to wear masks "when physical distancing of 6 feet cannot be ensured."
"I think they're doing a very good job out there, but there's a few outliers, and we do not want those outliers to be a reason to close down some business," Hutchinson said.Gallery: Daily COVID-19 Briefing
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which includes Alcoholic Beverage Control, said the agents visit each of the state's 5,000 alcohol permit holders, including bars, restaurants and liquor stores, at least once a month.
Any violations of the Health Department's rules will be reported to that department, he said.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson said he was hopeful that a statement Thursday by Secretary of State John Thurston would resolve concerns about whether residents will be able to vote safely during the general election in November.
Thurston said in the statement that the state's current laws provide sufficient latitude for voters concerned about the coronavirus to request absentee ballots.
"I want to have some further discussions on that, but if that is the interpretation, then that to me looks to me like it remedies the challenge that some of the voters were facing," Hutchinson said.
A lawsuit filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court this week seeks to force Thurston to allow no-excuse absentee voting during the election.
Hutchinson, who issued executive orders allowing such voting during elections in March, May and this month, has said he will decide by August on measures needed to ensure safe voting during the general election.
Also Friday, the Health Department awarded a contract to General Dynamics Information Technology to provide a team of contact tracers to aid in the department's efforts to contain the virus.
The firm was one of six finalists for a contract to provide the state with 350 contact tracers that the state hopes to have on the job by Wednesday.
Health Secretary Nate Smith has said he hopes to also award a contract to one of the other finalists to provide an additional 350 tracers.
The department has allocated $22 million in coronavirus relief funds that could be used for the initial contract over 18 months. Hutchinson has said he plans to seek an advisory committee's endorsement and legislative approval for an additional $22 million.
Health Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said Friday that the department doesn't plan to award a second contract until the additional funding is approved.
The department has about 200 employees assigned to contact tracing now, as well as 278 volunteers from the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health had also been supplying 20-30 volunteers at any given time toward the effort until recently.
"It's my understanding that ADH is transitioning to a new model of contact tracing for the state," Ben Amick, the college's associate dean for research, said, referring to the Health Department, in a statement this week. "We've enjoyed the partnership and will continue to support ADH in any way we can."
LITTLE ROCK ORDER
Hutchinson had previously discouraged cities from enacting mask requirements, saying he didn't want "a hodgepodge of different types of ordinances across the state."
He said an ordinance adopted by Fayetteville last week, requiring people to wear masks in most indoor public spaces, conflicted with his emergency declaration prohibiting cities and counties from issuing "quarantine regulations of commerce or travel" except "by authority of the Secretary of Health."
The order issued Thursday by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. requires people to wear face coverings "in all public places except when it is likely that physical distancing of at least six (6) feet from other individuals is practicable."
Residents are specifically "exhorted" to wear masks in places such as grocery stores, convenience stores and laundromats, and while riding public transportation.
The order also directs employees of businesses to wear masks when interacting in person with the public, working in places visited by the public or in a room with other people.
Businesses must also take "reasonable measures," such as posting signs, to remind people to wear masks and must not serve customers who refuse to comply with the order.
Scott's spokesman, Stephanie Jackson, said Thursday that city code enforcement officers could issue citations to enforce the order. Misdemeanor criminal citations could also be issued, she said.
"The executive order is clear that it requires masks in public spaces," Jackson said in an email Friday.
Reading from the order at his news conference Friday, Hutchinson noted that it "does not require any person to wear a face covering while driving in a motor vehicle, in a private business open to the public or as otherwise mandated by the governor of the state of Arkansas or the secretary of health."
"He's brought this directive or this proclamation under the umbrella of the state and has yielded to the state guidance," Hutchinson said.
Jackson said the section of the order quoted by Hutchinson "is included to ensure there were no restrictions on commerce, meaning any business."
Rules issued by the Health Department require customers and employees to wear masks in certain types of businesses, such as restaurants and hair salons.
The department has also issued guidance recommending that people wear masks in all places in which they could come within 6 feet of people who are not from their households.
Hutchinson has said Arkansans wouldn't support a broader mandate requiring masks in all public places.
In response to the growing number of cases in their states, the governors of Florida and Texas on Friday ordered bars to close.
Hutchinson said he didn't see a need for a similar order in Arkansas.
He noted that, as of Friday, less than 2% of the 5,706 people with known, active coronavirus infections in the state told the Health Department that they had visited a bar in the 14 days before they were diagnosed.
But Hutchinson said the state has identified clusters of virus cases linked to churches that haven't followed Health Department guidelines.
He displayed a map showing the location of three dozen churches where one or two people reported visiting while infected with covid-19.
Eight other churches -- in Jonesboro, Springdale, De Queen, Dardanelle, Nashville, North Little Rock and Corning -- were visited by three or more people with infections.
"Let me emphasize that 98% of our churches are fully following the guidelines that have been presented," Hutchinson said. "They are being so careful and protecting their congregants.
"But we've had a couple of instances, as reflected here, where they did not follow the guidelines, and it's resulted in some clusters of cases."
He said he wanted "our pastors and our churches to realize the consequence of not following the guidelines."
"You can have a number of cases break out, and you can actually have some very ill people, and people can die from this virus."
The Health Department hasn't issued a directive that applies to churches but has recommended that they take steps such as requiring congregants to wear masks and providing 6 feet of space between groups of family members.
"I fully respect the separation between government action and the role of the church, and so I've avoided giving directives to the church, but they know these are important guidelines, and by and large they're being followed," Hutchinson said.
Smith said churches where cases have been identified have temporarily stopped meeting or have worked with the department to implement its guidelines.
Among the churches that have recently been linked to multiple cases is the First Pentecostal Church in North Little Rock, where the Health Department conducted testing this week.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said Friday that 20 cases linked to the church had been identified, bringing the total to 34.
Lesnick has said the cases were believed to be linked to an event earlier this month, as well subsequent services.
"We are working with the church to provide more testing to the congregation," he said Friday.
The new cases added to the state's total Friday included 122 in Washington County, 84 in Pulaski County, 68 in Benton County, 33 in Sebastian County, 31 in Faulkner County, 26 in Crittenden County and 22 in Pope County.
At the Nashville School District, eight employees had tested positive as of Thursday evening, including six whose infections were still considered active, according to a Health Department report.
Graham, the superintendent, said by email that he was in a hospital in Hot Springs and the assistant superintendent was on a ventilator at a Little Rock hospital.
Others who have tested positive include the elementary school principal, the technology coordinator, another central office worker and a maintenance worker on a summer floor crew, he said.
Three spouses of employees have also tested positive, he said.
Most of those who tested positive were at a workshop at the central office on June 17, he said.
"Can't be 100% sure how everyone got the virus," he said in the email. "One employee had been to northwest Arkansas and that would be a strong possibility or something as simple as going to wal mart."
He said no one had been appointed to take his place while he's in the hospital.
"We have a very strong leadership team and everyone is pulling their weight to get us through this difficult time."
The state Department of Corrections, in addition to managing outbreaks at several state prisons, said 24 of the 54 senior cadets at the department's training academy in England have tested positive for the virus. Those who tested positive will delay the start of their on-the-job training for 10 days, while those who tested negative must wait two weeks, said department spokeswoman Cindy Murphy.
Murphy said the decision to allow covid-positive cadets to return to work early was based on recommendations from the Health Department, which determined that the cadets had likely been infected with the virus several days before testing positive.
Members of the freshman class of cadets, who are being tested for the virus, will have their training put on hold for two weeks, Murphy said. The virus has already strained staff resources at the department, prompting officials to tell corrections officers who had tested positive for the virus to return to work in areas with prisoners who had also tested positive.
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report that gave the department a failing grade for its response to the virus. The ACLU, along with other civil-rights groups, had earlier mounted an unsuccessful legal effort to force the department into increasing inmate releases and providing prisoners with better access to sanitation products.
The ACLU report gave all but nine states failing grades for their pandemic responses at prisons. According to "The Marshall Project," Arkansas had the third-highest rate of coronavirus infections among prisoners, trailing only Tennessee and New Jersey.
Asked to respond to the report, Murphy pointed to the Department of Corrections' efforts to provide staff members and prisoners with masks, soap and water, and signs containing information about best practices to prevent the spread of the virus.
Prison officials and critics of the system point out that one of the best practices, social distancing, is nearly impossible in crowded facilities.
"Some recent reports and media stories have painted an inaccurate picture of the national prison and jail response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Murphy said in a statement. "The complexity of treating and managing COVID-19 in a congregate prison setting cannot be understated."
Among workers in the poultry industry, the number of cases increased from Sunday evening to Thursday evening by 552, to 2,455, according to a Health Department report.
That total included 851 people whose infections were still considered active.
Non-poultry businesses with at least five active cases among employees as of Thursday evening included a Rockline Industries plant in Springdale, where 21 workers have tested positive, and ConAgra in Russellville, where 13 cases have been identified, according to a Health Department report.