An executive order Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed last week that made mask wearing mandatory in Arkansas went into effect Monday.
The order does not have a built-in expiration date, but is instead effective until the state of emergency declared in connection with COVID-19 expires. Those who don’t follow the order can be fined up to $500.
The governor has said the mandate is necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19. The state had recorded 34,655 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday evening, and had 488 residents actively hospitalized with 111 on ventilators. Ashley County had 43 confirmed active cases and had seen three deaths as of Tuesday; statewide, 374 people have died from the illness.
Local residents have received the mask mandate with mixed feelings.
Ebony Williams of Crossett said people who work in retail or at an essential business are concerned about how people will treat them because of the mandate. Customers verbally attacked Williams, an employee of the AT&T store, before the mandate even started.
Williams said that last week she not only had to call the police on a customer who got angry because he was asked to wear a mask, but he used racial slurs during his verbal attack.
“All because I asked him to wear a mask,” Williams said.
Williams has one son with asthma and two other children in school and so personally she wasn’t excited about the mask mandate. Like other essential employees, Williams has been wearing a mask daily for months. However, she said now that they are required everywhere it could be expensive for her family to continuously purchase them.
“It’s something else we have to buy, it’s like clothes now and even the washable ones don’t last forever,” Williams said.
Regardless of her personal feelings about the masks, she said she is still required by her employer to make sure that every customer has one on.
“We have mask to give them if they don’t have one, it’s not that we are turning them away at the door.” Williams said. “They don’t have to treat me like this is my fault.”
Whitney Farmer of Hamburg said she personally didn’t mind wearing a mask.
“I did wear one every day when this first began because I do have a compromised immune system from having Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis and then it made my ears sore,” she said. “It makes breathing and talking more difficult for sure. Understanding others wearing a mask is also difficult so it is changing how we communicate. We definitely have to speak louder.
“We really shouldn’t complain because health care workers do this everyday and have now had to amp up the type of masks they wear as well as extra protection.”
Brad Barfield of Crossett also said he has already been wearing a mask because he travels a lot and has no desire for vulnerable people to get sick.
“It’s pretty sad that you have to mandate common decency,” he said. “It doesn’t really effect my daily life. Just when I have to go shopping for or with my family. My job allows me to social distance, as most jobs do.
“The way I see it, if the people that serve me have to wear one, what will it hurt for me to do so as well?”
While the executive order, which can be read online at bit.ly/32Altr8, is wide ranging, it provides exceptions. They include:
4Those younger than 10 years
4Those with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing face coverings
4Those whose work is inhibited by safely wearing a mask
4Those participating in sports activities “where six feet distance is not achievable, but a mask is inhibitory to the activity”
4Those who are eating or drinking
4People driving alone or with passengers from the driver’s household
4Those receiving services “that require access to the face for security, surveillance or other purposes” temporarily
4People who are voting, assisting voters or performing other election administration, though face coverings are “strongly encouraged”
4People giving speeches or performances for broadcast or to an audience, though they are required to safely distance themselves from others
4People in counties where the Department of Health has certified that risk of community transmission of COVID-19 is low.
The order says that in order for a county to be considered low-risk, the area must not have had a newly identified case of COVID-19 for 28 consecutive days, “assuming there has been adequate testing in the county.”
The day after the mask mandate went into effect, the state reached its peak number of hospitalizations with 488 COVID patients in hospital beds.
Hutchinson noted this week that though Arkansas’ raw numbers are lower, the state is actually one of the highest in the country in terms of COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents.
“As cases go up, a percent of those will end up in the hospital, so we have to make sure we can reduce the cases, they can go home and we are not filling the capacity of our hospitals,” Hutchinson said. “We have more in terms of per capital hospitalizations than even some of those larger states. That shows the potential stress on our hospital capacity and some of the strain our hospital workers will be under.”
Speaking Tuesday, Interim State Health Director Dr. Jose Romero said the state needs to be ready to meet needs as they arise.
“COVID does what it wants and we need to be flexible and adjustable to the circumstances as they come,” he said. “Any recommendations that come today might not hold true in a week or a month.”
The Arkansas Department of Health’s guidance on wearing face masks states that, “A recent modeling study reported that when face masks are used by a majority of the population in public settings (not just symptomatic people), the effective reproductive number for SARS-COV-2 falls below 1.0. This would decrease the spread of COVID-19, flatten future disease waves, and allow people to resume normal activities with greatly reduced risk.”
The ADH’s official recommendation is that, “The general public should wear face coverings in all indoor environments where they are exposed to non-household members and distancing of six feet or more cannot be assured,” and that “the general public should also wear face coverings at all outdoor settings where they are exposed to non-household members, unless there is ample space (six feet or more) to practice physical distancing.”
Health officials continue to stress vigorous hand washing as a precautionary measure.
Nationally, the United States has confirmed 3.9 million cases of COVID-19.
Approximately 1.13 million people are considered recovered from the infection, and approximately 143,000 people have died.