Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he plans to issue a statewide order requiring people to wear face masks in public beginning Monday, July 20.
Hutchinson, who has been resistant to previous calls for a mask requirement, said the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, combined with the escalating deaths and hospitalizations in Arkansas “speak for themselves” and are a clear indication that the state needs to do more in its battle against the virus.
The governor said his decision was also made in response to legislators and frontline healthcare workers who have called for increased safety measures across the state.
Finally, Hutchinson said with most of the state’s children returning to class this fall under school mask mandates, it only makes sense that their parents should also follow the same rules.
“If you’re going to ask the children in a school setting to wear face coverings for everyone’s health and safety, then the adults must help them to be ready and to set the right example for them,” he said.
The order will require masks for all indoor and outdoor environments where individuals would be exposed to non-household members, and where social distancing is not possible.
There are some exemptions to the mandate. For example, children younger than 10 years old are excluded, as well as people with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering. A full list of exemptions is listed below:
Violations will result in a misdemeanor offense with fines between $100 and $500, but first-time offenders should only receive a warning, Hutchinson said.
The governor said no one can be detained or arrested for violating the order, but police may enforce other laws – including trespassing – to remove violators from businesses.
Cities may continue to pass their own local ordinances, Hutchinson said, as long as they are consistent with the state’s mandate, which supersedes all local rules.
The governor earlier this week hinted at the possibility of more strict regulations.
“As you look at the future, if our cases stay flat or go down, then we won’t have to utilize other tools,” Hutchinson said on Monday. “But if you see our cases go up, you’ll see us scrambling for new tools like they have in other states and there are limited numbers that we can grab.”
Since then the state has reported over 2,100 new COVID-19 infections, along with 31 additional hospitalizations and 18 more deaths.
The mandate comes just one day after Walmart announced it would require masks for customers at all its stores, and just hours after Target, CVS and Walgreens made similar moves. A growing list of national chains with recent mask requirements includes Kroger, Kohl’s, Costco, Starbucks, Best Buy, American Eagle Outfitters and Apple.
Dr. Jose Romero, who will soon replace Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith as interim director of health, said he and the department are “extremely grateful” to the governor for his decision.
“We are excited that this is going into place,” said Romero. “Masks have been shown to substantially decrease the transmission of COVID and are an essential part of the armamentarium against this disease.”
Romero said the state’s cumulative case count rose by 817 to 31,114 on Thursday. Of those, 81 are from correctional facilities.
Hospitalizations are up 12 to 470, and the number of patients on a ventilator is up seven to 101.
Romero said six more Arkansans have died from COVID-19, bringing the statewide death toll to 341.
Of the new cases, 6,578 are considered active and there are now 24,195 people categorized as having recovered from the illness.
Charts shown on Thursday