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Spotlight on Arkansas: Reopening a state that never really closed

Arkansas saw its largest one-day increase in coronavirus cases on Thursday.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Arkansas is decidedly different when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

It's one of only a handful of states that never issued a stay-at-home order.

Now, as cases increase here and Memorial Day weekend approaches, some Arkansans like David Bazzel have made a choice on how to balance risking life and livelihood.

Bazzel, a radio host in Little Rock, said the less-restrictive approach Arkansas has taken -- pools, salons and gyms initially were closed, but most retail shops have remained open -- puts the state in a "very fortunate" position.

What he said he hears from Arkansans is resolve: learn to live with the virus because the economic implications are too dire.

"You definitely can feel the pulse of people, and the majority of them are going, 'We've got to learn to deal with this. Let's dive in. Let's figure out a way to live with it best we can,'" Bazzel told ABC News.

"Arkansas is an outdoor state, so I expect this weekend will be massive, and I know there's gonna be a lot of people non-social distancing. I just think that's the nature of people to sometimes say, 'We don't care at this point," Bazzel said. "But I will promise you, this weekend will be the perfect storm for people wanting to get out."

Not everyone here is comfortable with that.

While Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state health department have allowed pools and water parks to open Friday -- and the CDC has also issued guidance for returning to the water -- some local pools have been reluctant to open, citing liability concerns.

That tension is clear in the blunt views of Russell Moore, a frustrated condominium owner in the same complex where Bazzel lives.

A retired investor, Moore has offered to sign away his legal rights to be able to go swimming.

"If they don't open, people are going to be pissed because it's Memorial Day weekend, and that's a big deal at the pool," he said.

"I'm not scared," Moore continued. "I'll try to stay away from people, of course. And if everybody did that, it's no different than going to the grocery store."

"They've proven that sunlight is a good disinfectant, so if you are outside and the sun's hitting you, that's supposed to be a good thing," he added, referring to a CDC report, which says exposure to sunlight will reduce the time the virus survives on surfaces.

Trump and Birx applaud Arkansas, though cases rise in state

Hutchinson, the Republican governor, has argued he kept retail businesses open to protect the state's economy and jobs, something Trump likes to hear. During a White House visit Wednesday, Hutchinson used the national stage to spotlight Arkansas with one central message.

"In Arkansas, we're back to work," he said with a smile.

"All of our retail establishments are totally open. Our gyms are open. Our barbers are open. Our restaurants are open. Now sure, they have some restrictions on a third occupancy and things like that, and we're emphasizing social distancing -- but we're at work," Hutchinson said, adding that staying open is projected to save the state 5% in loss of sales tax revenue, which the president called, "big news."

Arkansas not only has imposed some of the fewest restrictions of any state but also has won praise for containing outbreaks. At that same meeting with Trump, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx applauded the efforts of Arkansas and Kansas, whose governor was on hand as well.

"You can see these two states have done exactly what we asked them to do. Find cases, contact trace, contain outbreaks and ensure that their citizens do as well as possible," she said.

But it's not all good news.

Nearly every day this week, Arkansas has reported an increase in cases.

The state reported 455 additional positive tests for COVID-19 between Hutchinson's White House visit Wednesday and his return to his daily press conference Thursday -- the single largest one-day increase in Arkansas since the pandemic began.

Hutchinson and Arkansas Health Department Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said roughly half are not new cases but "delayed entries" from a federal prison, which has seen a large outbreak, while the other half are from community spread.

Both have attributed the uptick largely to increased testing, but the state has also eased what few restrictions it had over the past two weeks.

Restaurants resumed dine-in service on May 11 but were told to operate at a third of their normal capacity.

Casinos and indoor venues reopened on Monday, and in Fort Smith, the state held what might be the nation's first socially-distanced concert, complete with temperature checks.

Still, for some, a warning to close their doors as the pandemic silently spread didn't come quickly enough.

First cases in Arkansas spread from church

A CDC report released Tuesday, underscoring the risks of states reopening, traced the first significant cases in Arkansas to a cluster of infections tied to a church in early March -- before the first case was discovered in the state.

The church involved was in a rural area of Cleburne County, in the north-central part of the state. This ultimately led to the spread of COVID-19, not only to the parishioners, but to the local community.

Fifty-six people were infected and three people died after attending one church event, before the scope of the outbreak was fully understood.

Arkansas pastor: 'We dodged a bullet'

One-hundred-and-fifty miles to the south, another church leader in another rural Arkansas town defended the church cited in the CDC report, explaining that there was no guidance in early March to shut down places of worship.

"We were also still meeting when that happened, and so when that came out, I felt like we dodged the bullet," said Pastor Hammett Evans of the First United Methodist Church of Monticello.

Hutchinson never banned church gatherings during the pandemic, arguing separation of church and state. At the same time, he said, congregations would abide by state restrictions -- voluntarily.

"You've had all these churches since then that have kind of refused to follow the guidance, but at the time, they weren't being disobedient or foolish about it. We were in the same boat," Evans said. "I was terrified to find out that many got infected."

Evans closed his doors on March 13, a week after the outbreak occurred, but before cases were reported. Though the CDC report made national news Tuesday, he said it was known among some of the state's spiritual leaders that the outbreak had manifested itself by mid-March.

"Guidance from the Bishop's office started getting more and more strict, saying we're recommending that you close your church. Well, I've never heard that. I've been doing this for 30 years. I was a preacher's kid, and the Bishop has never said we think you need to close your church."

Although he admitted his expertise is in theology not biology, he said he consulted with friends in the medical field, and everything changed when he learned about asymptomatic individuals.

"At first we thought, if people wash their hands and stay home when they're sick, then it'll be okay, just like the flu or whatever. But what changed, what convinced me to shut the doors, was learning that you could be asymptomatic and still contagious. And that was it."

Evans has not told his 200-person congregation when the church doors will open again, but it won't be until at least June. While he follows guidance from the Department of Health and the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, Evans said if there was more guidance from the CDC on faith-based gatherings, he said he would "absolutely" follow it.

Getting ahead of the curve

Some Arkansans identified a shortage of personal protective equipment early on, specifically masks, when the outbreak was silently spreading.

Lindsay Soulsby, an artist in Fayetteville and self-proclaimed "hoarder of fabric," said she started making mask prototypes as COVID-19 quickly got worse.

"I was out for toilet paper, and I looked like a bubble boy wearing gloves and a face covering, and I noticed that people really weren't taking the warnings seriously. No one was covering their face or social distancing," she said.

What started as a hobby and became a service to health care workers turned into a profitable business when the general public started showing interest in her masks via Instagram. She expected to make 300, and she has since made over 3,000 masks, sent to 28 states. Roughly half have been donated to those serving on the frontlines.

"At first in Arkansas, if you wanted a mask it was really hard to get one. It was hard for medical workers to get the supplies they needed," she said.

Soulsby applauded Hutchinson for setting an example by wearing a mask in Arkansas -- although he was not photographed wearing one at the White House.

"For public figures, whether political or a social influencer, wearing a mask is extremely important in setting an example," Soulsby said, adding there is a responsibility on everyday Arkansans to take the precaution as well. "Even if it's as simple as wearing a mask, to make sure that we don't end up as devastated as New York or New Orleans."

An uneven reopening

The reopening of the state's economy has been uneven.

For example, though restaurants were open for dining-in at 33% capacity on May 11, some elected not to, citing a lack of patrons, an inability to staff or inadequate time to prepare.

"We're delaying on a full reopening until we have every single thing on our list checked off, of what we think is best. That's determining our opening date for each store," Amber Brewer, brand manager of the Little Rock-based restaurant group Yellow Rocket Concepts, said.

Though she says 40% of their sales were gone "on day one" due to the inability to sell alcohol, Brewer said they've done well enough with curbside service that they haven't had to lay off a single one of their roughly 500 employees.

Others have not been spared.

One family-owned bakery reopened for dine-in early on May 11, desperate for a return of customer confidence, but hasn't seen large demand.

The Old Mill Bread Bakery & Cafe -- coined from the Old Mill made famous in the opening scene of "Gone with the Wind" -- was forced to lay off six workers and suspend two locations when the pandemic hit.

"At first it was a shell shock. We were operating at 5% of what we normally do. We had to let go of every single one of our employees minus our baker, my dad, myself and one other girl," Caity Graham said, whose family owns the business.

Graham said that while her small business received a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, her family isn't sure how to use it.

"We're too scared to really utilize it yet because not all of the kinks are worked out on it, as far as stipulations. We don't want to do something that we won't be able to afford later on," she said. "You have to pay the loan back if it's not 80% payroll and 80% of the money that we spend, that we need help with, is not going to our employees."

Like others in Arkansas, the bottom line is survival: finding that balance between risking life and livelihood.

"We need people to get here," she said. "But 33% capacity isn't worth it to even put the chairs back down."

Editor's note: Libby Cathey, a digital reporter based in the ABC News Washington bureau, reported this story on the ground in her native Arkansas.

What to know about the coronavirus:

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