Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday said he’s signed an executive order that will allow individual cities to require face masks in their communities.
Such an action was previously in conflict with state law which said cities could not make their own safety rules during a pandemic.
The announcement comes after Thursday’s news that the state had reported 878 new COVID-19 cases, which was more than double the previous day’s count.
The governor said the state’s Health Department worked with the Arkansas Municipal League to develop a model ordinance that cities can adopt which will require the use of face coverings in public places.
John Wilkerson, general counsel for the Municipal League, said while the language in the pre-approved ordinance does allow for a city-wide mandate, it does not carry an enforcement provision, meaning that offenders could not be arrested. Wilkerson said the exclusion of an enforcement component was by design, and that the plan instead states that local law enforcement should act in a support capacity to educate people instead of punishing those who aren’t wearing masks.
“We took the approach that educating and informing is the most reasonable approach,” said Wilkerson. “Hopefully that does it.”
The Fayetteville City Council last month voted unanimously to pass its own ordinance requiring face masks despite a warning from City Attorney Kit Williams that such action would violate state law.
“Since the governor and Department of Health have clearly stated that they will not require masks, then if the City Council tried to enact their own rule I’m afraid that would probably not be upheld in court,” Williams said.
When asked about it the following day, Gov. Hutchinson said the state would not interfere unless more cities followed Fayetteville’s lead in passing their own mandates.
“We want to have a coordinated approach, not a hodgepodge of different types of ordinances across the state,” said Hutchinson.
In a later press conference, Hutchinson re-read the state law that prohibits cities from passing their own rules and told reporters that the state law trumps any local measure. He also said he wished someone from Fayetteville would’ve coordinated with state officials before adopting a local law.
Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he was taken aback by that comment since his office had been in communication with Hutchinson’s chief of staff and general counsel since the pandemic began. He said eventually his own chief of staff inquired specifically about whether Fayetteville could require face masks, but instead of answering the question, the governor’s office simply pointed to the Department of Health’s general safety guidelines.
“That was not the question,” Jordan wrote in a June 17 letter to Hutchinson. “The question was about my authority to require those guidelines rather than simply suggest them as best practices.”
Hutchinson on Friday took responsibility and said he’d personally spoken to Jordan this week about the matter.
“We did not have as effective communication as we should have previously,” said Hutchinson. “And that’s on me.”
The governor on Friday was asked whether Fayetteville’s already-adopted law – and a similar executive order signed by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. – would need to be amended to align with the state’s new model ordinance.
“I’ve already given my statements on those ordinances,” said Hutchinson. “The governing law in Arkansas is the executive orders we have. If cities want to adopt (face mask laws) I hope (the model ordinance) is what they will consider.”
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the number of known positive COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 22,622 on Friday, which is an increase of 547 since Thursday. Of those new cases, he said, 182 are in correctional facilities.
Washington County led the state with 84 new cases, while Benton and Pulaski counties reported 74 new cases. All other counties reported less than 20 new cases.
Smith said hospitalizations increased by 13 to 285, and the number of patients on a ventilator increased by one to 70.
Two more Arkansans died from COVID-19 since Thursday, which brings the toll to 281. There are currently 6,177 active cases and 16,164 patients have so far recovered from the illness.
Graphs released Friday