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Arkansas to further lift virus limits despite spike in cases

June 10, 2020 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas will further ease its coronavirus restrictions on businesses next week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday, despite recent dramatic increases in the state’s active cases and hospitalizations.

Hutchinson said the state will move into “Phase 2” of reopening on Monday, allowing restaurants, bars and other businesses that are limited to one-third capacity to expand to two-thirds. Arkansas last month began allowing businesses that had closed because of the pandemic to reopen but with capacity limits and other restrictions meant to prevent the virus’s spread.

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The Republican governor decided to further reopen businesses even with the state in the midst of what he’s called a second peak of the outbreak. The number of active cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have recovered or died, has increased by more than 85% since Memorial Day. Hospitalizations have increased by more than 82% in that same period.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Hutchinson said. “We’re still in the heart of the woods when it comes to this health care emergency.”

Hutchinson and state health officials said there isn’t any evidence connecting the spike in cases to the decision to reopen businesses. The increase has been driven by a rise in cases in northwest Arkansas, especially in the Latino community. The governor has also said the increase is partly due to increased testing in the state.

The governor said the state will conduct additional testing and contact tracing in the northwest region, and will increase staff to inspect and respond to complaints about businesses not complying with safety rules. Hutchinson said the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also sending multilingual staffers to assist in response efforts.

A Democratic lawmaker from northwest Arkansas called Hutchinson’s decision concerning, especially amid the spike in cases.

“This is going to send a message to people that these increasing cases aren’t necessarily something to be worried about, one more reason people might shrug off wearing a mask or shrug off social distancing,” Sen. Greg Leding said.

But Hutchinson’s decision follows complaints from some conservatives that the state hasn’t moved quickly enough to lift restrictions, including from one GOP lawmaker who told the governor this week that businesses in his district planned to defy the state and ease restrictions on their own.

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Rep. Dan Sullivan, who wrote the letter, said the eased capacity limits addresses a complaint he’s heard from restaurants that are losing money under the current restraints.

“People can live with that as long as they can see they’ve got an opportunity to make enough money that they can stay viable,” Sullivan said.

A Health Department spokeswoman said the capacity limits will be the main restrictions eased, while other social distancing rules and safety measures will remain in place. An order detailing the new rules under Phase 2 was expected later this week.

The Department of Health said at least 10,368 people in Arkansas have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 288 cases from Tuesday. The number of active cases, meaning those that exclude people who have died or recovered, rose to 3,087.

The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The number of people who have died from the illness caused by the virus rose by four to 165, and the number hospitalized increased to 181.

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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