Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state won’t interfere with Fayetteville’s newly adopted law that requires the use of face masks in businesses.
The City Council on Tuesday enacted an ordinance requiring face coverings in public service areas at businesses. The vote was unanimous despite a warning from City Attorney Kit Williams that such a measure would likely violate state law which prohibits individual municipalities from writing their own public safety rules, even during a pandemic.
Williams said a 2017 state statute hands full power to the state Board of Health in determining public safety regulations, and since the governor and Department of Health have clearly stated that they will not require masks in Arkansas, then any challenge of Fayetteville’s action would likely end in the nullification of the new law.
Council members said they understood the risk, but were comfortable pushing forward to try and limit the spread of coronavirus in Northwest Arkansas where a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has been a daily topic of the governor’s press briefings. Washington County alone has on several days been the site of triple-digit increases in positive cases with nearby Benton County following close behind. Nearly all other counties in the state have reported less than 20 new cases each day.
Despite the rising outbreak, the governor continued forward with a plan to move the entire state into Phase 2 of a reopening plan that further removed limitations put on businesses.
The City Council’s action came on the heels of a letter from Mayor Lioneld Jordan who urged business owners to require masks, along with an online petition encouraging the council to take formal action to strengthen the mayor’s advice.
Some council members said they felt as though Northwest Arkansas had been left alone to fend for itself, and passing a law requiring masks was the least the city could do.
“I think that what we’ve seen is that the governor has been responsive to the stated intentions of other communities and I would hope that he would be responsive to our intention,” said Council Member Matthew Petty, who helped draft the ordinance.
Others agreed, and said it was an easy decision to make.
Council Member Sarah Bunch said she thinks people want to do what’s right and it’s not been made abundantly clear that wearing masks is the right thing to do. She said a law would remove all ambiguity.
Council Member Sonia Gutierrez said in the hours leading up to the council meeting, she’d heard from several people in other Northwest Arkansas cities who said they would prefer to leave their own towns and shop in Fayetteville if a mask law were put into effect.
City Attorney Williams said personally, he believes everyone should be wearing masks during the pandemic, but he didn’t think that the governor would simply allow Fayetteville to go out on its own and pass its own rules.
“If you want to pass this, I can’t recommend it as your City Attorney,” he said. “I hope it would not be challenged if this is passed, but I suspect it probably would.”
When asked on Wednesday about any possible intervention, Gov. Hutchinson said anyone could take legal action if they feel personally aggrieved, but he didn’t anticipate any state interference at the time.
“I know they are trying to protect citizens,” he said. “I understand where their heart is.”
The governor, however, said he would prefer that municipalities not write their own rules.
“I would discourage other cities from stepping out there like that,” he told reporters, adding that there is some conflict with what Fayetteville enacted and the state’s emergency orders.
When pressed on the subject, Hutchinson said he knows the area has a growing number of cases and he doesn’t intend to interfere with the local law, but he’s concerned that other cities might follow Fayetteville in passing their own legislation.
“If it becomes more of a problem across the state with different instances of municipalities taking action, then we’ll re-examine that,” he said. “We want to have a coordinated approach, not a hodgepodge of different types of ordinances across the state.”
Earlier in his briefing, Hutchinson announced that visitation at longterm care facilities would resume on July 1.
The lifting of that restriction will only apply to facilities that have completed testing requirements and that meet specific criteria outlined by the Department of Health. He said some facilities won’t be ready by July 1, but there are some that will and others that will be ready to open for visitations by the following holiday weekend.
Hutchinson said outdoor visits are preferred, but indoor visits will be allowed during bad weather and for those residents who cannot safely be moved outside. Visits, he said, will be scheduled in advanced and visitation areas are to be sanitized regularly. Specific guidance is expected to be released sometime today (June 17).
As for a case update, Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the number of known positive COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 13,606 on Wednesday, which is an increase of 415 since Tuesday. Of those, 35 were in correctional facilities.
Smith said 90 of the new cases were in Washington County and 81 came from Benton County. All other counties reported less than 25 new cases, he said.
Hospitalizations, he said, are up three to 217, and there were nine new deaths since Tuesday, bringing the toll to 197.
Smith said the active case count is currently at 4,413, meaning 8,996 people are categorized as recovered from the illness.