Virus update

Arkansas government will formally order residents on Thursday not to meet in social gatherings of 10 or more people as the state seeks to slow the COVID-19 virus.

Up until Wednesday, the admonition of state officials for the public to avoid large gatherings was a request.

“In order for us to be successful in Arkansas for us to slow the upward trend line, the public needs to abide by the guidance of the Department of Health,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

The “guidance” has been to limit social gatherings to 10 or fewer persons.

“I’ve heard that while many Arkansans are abiding by that very carefully, there are exceptions to that. And those exceptions can endanger what we’re trying to do in getting a handle on this crisis.

“This has been a guideline, and this will be made into a directive. So, the Department of Health will be working on the specific language of a directive that when it comes to inside, social events, we need to follow the guidelines,” Hutchinson said.

“I want to urge Arkansans to be mindful about where they are and who they’re with in public spaces. Don’t clump together. Keep a safe distance,” said Dr. Nathaniel Smith, director of the state Department of Health.

“I got an email from someone who said he’d seen a crowded liquor store, so we should shut down liquor stores. I don’t think we need to shut down every place that has crowds, but you don’t have to be crowded together,” Smith said.

Smith also urged churches to be creative in ways they provide social cohesion, while avoiding the need to gather in one space.

“I don’t want to go to a shelter-in-place environment. I do not want to shut down our manufacturing or our other-than-essential businesses. How do you avoid going to those additional steps as we have seen in other states? The answer is, ‘Let’s all do our responsibility,’” Hutchinson said.

The state Medical Board has granted emergency licenses to new doctors who have completed one year of internships. License fees have been waived for 15 new physicians.

The state Nursing Board has also issued speeded-up licenses to 300 new nurses.

The Arkansas General Assembly is meeting in special session starting today to deal with anticipated drops in tax revenues, and shift state funds into the COVID-19 fight.

The governor asked those members of the public to be patient while filing claims for unemployment claims.

Layoffs have become commonplace during the public health emergency as several segments of the economy have shut down.

Hutchinson said on Wednesday that 8,000 claims for unemployment have been filed during the past week – including 700 on Wednesday morning.

The state’s jobless rate, which was at 3.5 percent in January, is expected to soar into double digits.

“People are getting through the system. Those who are filing need to be patient,” Hutchinson said. He called the volume of claims unprecedented. He acknowledged that telephone wait times to file claims are over 25 minutes.

“We are trying to upgrade the system,” the governor said.

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