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NWA EDITORIAL: Wrong medicine

Benton County JPs as public health authority? by NWA Democrat-Gazette | February 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

It has been 11 months since Gov. Asa Hutchinson began taking steps that, until covid-19 struck, would have been anathema to a pro-business conservative governor of a Republican-dominated Southern state.

Hutchinson, backed by the state's public health advisers, began restricting businesses.

This in a state that devotes a lot of time and energy to attracting and promoting business. This in a state with leaders who have historically placed great value on the idea that the best kind of government is that which governs (or intrudes) least.

A virus that spreads quickly and easily through human-to-human contact made it a no-brainer that business as usual wasn't an option.

March 11 was the date Arkansas' first covid-19 case was verified, prompting Hutchinson to declare the public health emergency that's been extended over and over as the fight against the virus' spread continued. The federal government quickly began restricting some travel. Colleges began setting up for remote teaching. Election officials began figuring out how to manage voting in a presidential election year without the process becoming a super-spreader event. By March 16, Hutchinson announced the closing of public schools. Many workers across the state began performing their jobs at home.

Perhaps the moment many Americans realized the pandemic would be a big, big deal was when the NCAA canceled 2020's March Madness basketball tournament.

On March 19, Hutchison ordered closure of all restaurant dining rooms, bars and gymnasiums. A few days later, the state mandated indoor social gatherings be limited to 10 or fewer people.

In short, the world was constricting in the midst of a serious threat. Local, state and federal officials faced developing a response unlike anyone alive had ever witnessed or attempted. As we now know -- because of the deaths of more than 5,300 fellow Arkansans -- an inadequate response represented a clear and present danger to the people of this state.

Hutchinson, in the months since those early days of the pandemic, has admirably navigated the competing needs of the state. Although there were people calling for a complete shutdown, including a mandate to force residents to "shelter in place," Hutchinson recognized the need for balance and the probability that dealing with the coronavirus would play out much like a marathon, rather than a sprint.

Where it has made sense, based on covid-19 test numbers, Hutchinson has backed off restrictions in measured ways. Particularly in regard to businesses, the public health orders have attempted to create room for retailers, restaurants, bars, gyms and other outlets to operate while still protecting the public from the virus' spread. Some will say lives could have been saved by more restrictions. Lives really have been saved by the restrictions in place. But it's counter-intuitive to believe full-on business closures will result in zero infections in the state. Hutchinson has had the unenviable position of striking the balance between income-producing jobs and the public health threat, but that's the kind of job we elect governors to do.

Hutchinson has done this balancing act with some in the Legislature advocating to strip his office of such powers.

Last week, in Benton County, members of the Quorum Court appeared ready to get into the act of criticizing Hutchinson's performance. At the urging of Justice of the Peace Carrie Perrien Smith of Rogers, the Committee of the Whole backed a resolution saying that all covid-19 restrictions on businesses should be lifted.

"My purpose is to rally my fellow county legislators to tell Gov. Hutchinson that we trust businesses to decide what is right for their employees and their customers," Smith said Monday. "Hopefully, the local city councils will hear the message loud and clear, too. If enough county legislators spoke up for our business community, it would give our state legislators more courage to stand up for our business community, too."

We're all about trusting businesses to know what's best for their operations. When it comes to a potentially deadly public health threat, however, is it wise to make a similar assumption about all businesses, as Smith's proposal would do?

We'd even suggest a majority of businesses might continue to go above and beyond to protect their loyal customers and hardworking employees. But as Arkansans have witnessed throughout the pandemic, others have shown defiance, resistant as much as possible to masks, social distancing and limited capacities.

The challenge with laws is that they affect everyone even when the problems arise from only a small portion of the population. And yet we still have laws.

Smith is right when she says business operators know a lot more today about what's necessary to protect customers and employees from the virus. That's in large part due to the public health efforts of the state and the mandates Gov. Hutchinson put in place.

When Arkansas drivers figure out the speed limit on an interstate is 70 mph, the Legislature doesn't eliminate the law that makes that limit enforceable. Likewise, Gov. Hutchinson should retain his emergency powers so he can continue to lead the state wisely with regard to the restrictions and when to lift them, all with the excellent advice of his public health experts. Hutchinson, in the interest of public health, should continue to listen to those experts, not justices of the peace in Benton County.

The Benton County resolution is a Johnny-come-lately political move. With vaccinations picking up and better days getting closer, it's easier now to declare the governor has no business exercising his emergency powers. Just the other day, the governor lifted some restrictions on local sports tournaments on and indoor venues. He's continuing his balanced and moderate approach.

Of course, the timing of the Benton County resolution will give those who support it the opportunity to take credit whenever Hutchinson finds room in the state's pandemic experience to ease the restrictions on businesses. Maybe that's the point.

Things are getting better, but Arkansas isn't ready to go back to business as usual.

More News

What’s the point?

Benton County justices of the peace should leave room for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to continue his balanced leadership on pandemic restrictions affecting businesses.

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