Arkansas governor declares public health emergency, calls for special session

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Posted at 4:49 PM, Jul 29, 2021

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The governor of Arkansas announced Thursday that he’s reinstating a statewide public health emergency due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, but it won’t include a mask mandate or restrictions on businesses.

At a press conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the emergency declaration will extend for 60 days.

“The reason for it is we are in a public health emergency. Anytime you’re having staffing shortages in hospitals, whenever today we have, I believe it is four COVID patients that are waiting in ambulances to be able to find a hospital to go to, that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis,” said Hutchinson.

The governor listed two reasons for the emergency declaration, one of which is so the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management can seek necessary staffing assistance in health care programs across the state through an interstate compact.

He said the declaration will also allow the state to ease the licensure of health care professionals for returning to their professions after they have retired, so they can help with the increase in COVID-19 cases.

Hutchinson also said he spoke with the White House on Thursday and asked for federal assistance to come to Arkansas to help evaluate the situation with bed capacity for COVID-19 patients. He said the Biden administration is sending a surge response team to the state.

Along with the emergency declaration announcement, Hutchinson said he’s calling a special session of the state legislature “most likely next week” to amend Act 1002 to “give local school boards, local decisionmakers the authority to make a decision for the public health of those who are 12 and under, or their entire school environment, but I’m particularly concerned about those in that age category.”

KHBS reports that Act 1002 prohibits the state from requiring face masks for most entities, including schools.

Hutchinson pointed out that Arkansas Children’s Hospital has 24 adolescents battling COVID-19, two of which are on ventilators, five are in the ICU, and none of them are fully immunized. He said 12 of the 24 are under 12 and not eligible to be vaccinated.

“There will be no statewide mask mandate imposed by me and the legislature of course has made that clear as well,” said Hutchinson. “This is not about a debate about mask mandates for those who can make their own decisions and have the means to get vaccinated. This is a discussion about the school environment where schools can make decisions to add to the public health for their own school environment and for the children that they have a responsibility to protect.”

He said there are no discussions about restrictions on businesses.

“We are wide open in Arkansas,” said the governor. “We’re going to be doing business in Arkansas. We have to live with the threat of the virus, the increase in vaccinations, but also, we have to continue to do business, provide for our families, and there is not going to be those kinds of restrictions here in this state.”