Arkansas continues phased reopening as coronavirus cases increase

Officials say the rise is due to increased testing and not community spread.

May 20, 2020, 12:35 PM

Arkansas continued its phased reopening Tuesday, as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state continued to rise.

On Tuesday, the state allowed bars within restaurants to reopen with reduced capacity and mask requirements.

The same day, the state reported 4,923 confirmed cases, up 110 from the day before. All but four of those new cases were through community transmission, with the rest occurring in correctional facilities, which have experienced outbreaks throughout the pandemic. Those 106 cases marked the fourth straight day Arkansas' number of community cases had increased, and were the state's second-highest daily tally of community transmission since the outbreak began.

At his daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson attributed the recent rise in community spread to increased testing, but added that "we still have work to do in Arkansas." The state's seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases has also largely trended upward since May 9. "We'd like to see that go down more," Hutchinson said Tuesday.

PHOTO: Anna Barnard, left, wears a protective mask as she talks to Greg and Judy Robinson at Dugan's Pub in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday, May 11,2020.
Anna Barnard, left, wears a protective mask as she talks to Greg and Judy Robinson at Dugan's Pub in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday, May 11,2020. Restaurants in Arkansas were allowed to resume offering dine-in service on Monday after they had been limited to delivery or carryout because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Andrew Demillo/AP Photo

More than 93,700 tests have been performed in Arkansas, with 39,700 done so far this month alone. The state ultimately aims to test 60,000 residents each month. On Monday, it had a daily testing high of 3,014, according to Dr. Nate Smith, the secretary of the state's health department.

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Arkansas has largely ping-ponged throughout the month, which Smith also attributed to the increased testing. In the last week, the number of new patients hospitalized rose from 60 to 78.

"Since we've pretty much tripled our testing rate, we are identifying a lot of cases, especially asymptomatic cases that we weren't picking up before this," Smith said at Tuesday's briefing. "Hopefully as we continue to increase our testing, identify more of these new cases, interrupt the spread of COVID-19, we'll see those numbers stabilize and also go down."

State officials say they're focusing testing efforts on vulnerable areas such as nursing homes. On Tuesday, Hutchinson announced that the state plans to test every nursing home resident and staffer in June, for upwards of 50,000 new tests, to help limit the spread of the virus.

The state is also targeting communities with upticks in cases, such as Forrest City, where a federal corrections facility has seen an outbreak. On Saturday, the state performed 550 tests in the city, "the most extensive testing we've done in any community since we started," Hutchinson said.

A concert goer has her temperature taken prior to entering the first socially-distanced concert at TempleLive in on May 18, 2020 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Arkansas has been loosening restrictions on closed businesses for the past two weeks, starting with gyms, large outdoor venues and places of worship on May 4. On May 11, restaurants could resume dine-in service, and this week sees a slew of more reopenings. On Monday, retailers, casinos and indoor venues were able to resume business, and that day the concert venue TempleLive held its first socially-distanced concert, complete with temperature checks and a majority of seats roped off.

Beaches and pools are also on tap to reopen on Friday, ahead of Memorial Day, and standalone bars are scheduled to reopen on May 26. Reopened businesses must follow strict capacity and social distancing guidelines, and everyone is advised to wear face masks in public.

The community spread does not appear to be driven by the recent reopenings, Smith said Tuesday.

Of the state's 1,082 active cases, three people reported going to a restaurant within the incubation period, 10 had reported going to a church, six to a barber shop, four to a gym and three to a daycare, Smith reported. "These activities don't appear to be driving our community cases," he said.

Of those active cases, 630 are in the community, 369 are in correctional facilities and 83 are in nursing homes, Smith said.

Arkansas is one of the few states not to have issued a shelter-in-place order during the pandemic, which Hutchinson has argued has been to protect the state's economy.

"We took a serious hit, but not as bad as we would have been if we had laid off another 100,000 or so, had we done that shelter-in-place early on," Hutchinson said on C-Span last week. "I think we managed it carefully with a targeted response to the COVID-19 virus."

On Tuesday night, a new CDC study underscoring the risks of states reopening traced a cluster of infections in Arkansas to a church in early March before the first case was even discovered there. More than one third of the 92 people who attended the church got sick, three died.

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