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Northwest Arkansas city mandates masks because of virus

June 17, 2020 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday he opposed but wouldn’t try to block a city’s requirement to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and the mayor of the state’s capital city said he’ll pursue a similar mandate.

The Fayetteville City Council in northwest Arkansas on Tuesday approved an ordinance requiring face masks at most public places indoors, with some exceptions. The measure also requires businesses to provide masks to those who enter at minimal or no cost.

The requirement comes as Arkansas has seen a dramatic resurgence in virus cases, driven by a spike in northwest Arkansas. The number of active cases, meaning those excluding people who have died or recovered, has risen more than 165% in the state since Memorial Day and hospitalizations have more than doubled the same period.

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The sponsor of Fayetteville’s measure said it’s not intended to be punitive and is intended to help businesses underscore the importance of wearing mask to stop the virus’s spread. The Fayetteville council also set aside $100,000 for a public safety campaign that will include distributing masks to businesses.

“There are a number of managers at businesses, as has been expressed to me, that want to ask more customers to wear a mask, but when a customer refuses they lack protocol or guidance on what to do next,” Alderman Matthew Petty, who introduced Fayetteville’s proposal, said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has encouraged residents to wear masks to prevent the virus’s spread, but has said he doesn’t see a need for it to be mandated statewide. The Republican governor told reporters he’d prefer cities not enact their own requirements.

“We want to have a coordinated approach,” Hutchinson said. “We don’t want to have a hodgepodge of different types of ordinances across the state.”

Hutchinson said he didn’t expect the state to take any action to challenge Fayetteville’s ordinance, but added that “if it becomes more of a problem across the state in different instances of municipalities taking action, we’ll re-examine that.”

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott on Wednesday also said he’s asked his city’s attorney to draft an executive order that would require face masks in public spaces. Scott said he’s asked the attorney to draft the order in a way that doesn’t conflict with Hutchinson’s pandemic emergency declaration, which places limits on actions cities can take to restrict commerce or travel.

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Scott said he expected to have that order by early next week.

Arkansas Municipal League Executive Director Mark Hayes said Fayetteville is the only city in the he knows of that’s enacted such a requirement, which he said is prohibited by the governor’s emergency order.

Hayes said he understands the need to encourage wearing face masks but “under Arkansas law right now I think that’s the governor’s call and the health department’s call.”

Hutchinson has previously opposed local coronavirus restrictions that go beyond the state’s. In April, he opposed cities imposing the kind of stay-at-home order that most states other than Arkansas had to fight the virus.

Health officials said at least 13,606 people in the state have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 415 cases since Tuesday. The department said 4,413 of those cases are considered active. The true number of cases is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The number of deaths increased to 197, while hospitalizations increased to 217.

Hutchinson also announced Wednesday that visitation Arkansas nursing homes and other long-term care facilities can resume having visitors beginning in July. Visitation at the facilities was prohibited in March due to the virus and the state has been testing all residents.

Hutchinson visitors will only be allowed at facilities that have completed testing staff and residents and meet other requirements outlined by the state. Residents will be limited to two visitors maximum at a time and the visits must be scheduled in advance under the rules.

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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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