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Governor stresses 'personal responsibility' as cases continue to rise

Arkansas had 687 new cases of COVID-19, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday in his regular pandemic response briefing. Of the new cases, 519 were active in the community for a cumulative total of 4,750 active community cases.

An additional 17 hospitalizations have been recorded since Wednesday for a total of 284. Of the hospitalized, 66 patients are on ventilators, an increase of eight since Wednesday. Two deaths have been recorded since Wednesday for a cumulative total of 242.

Since Wednesday, the state recorded 559 more recoveries from COVID-19.

Washington and Benton Counties continue to lead the way in new cases, while Pulaski, Lonoke and Sebastian Counties also recorded elevated numbers of cases since Wednesday.

Since Wednesday, 6,652 tests have been completed for a total of 141,515 tests in the month of June. Arkansas is testing 925 residents per 10,000 in the state, the governor said.

In the northwest part of the state – Benton and Washington counties – the seven-day rolling average of new cases is going down, despite the two counties leading the way in new cases frequently.

Despite the encouraging signs, Washington County’s testing rate of their population is significantly lower than Benton County and the overall state testing rate. The governor and Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the state hopes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials will give the state feedback on how they can better increase the testing rate in Washington County.

In the tests Washington County has completed, the positivity rate has been significantly higher than in Benton County. The governor said the high positivity rate means the state is targeting testing well.

As in previous briefings, the governor stressed the importance of wearing face masks in public. However, he said requiring face masks in public was the wrong move and insisted the focus should be on educating residents about the importance of wearing masks.

“If you start penalizing or make [wearing masks] mandatory, there’s a resistance against that, there’s not broad public acceptance of it and it throws the whole thing in shambles and [you] lose credibility,” the governor said.

Mail-in ballots thrust Postal Service into presidential race

The U.S. Postal Service’s famous motto – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers” – is being tested like never before, by challenges that go well beyond the weather.

Its finances have been devastated by the coronavirus. The Trump administration may attach big strings to federal bailouts.

The agency’s responsibilities, meanwhile, are mounting. A dramatic shift in many states to voting by mail is intended to protect voters from spreading the virus at polling places. But it’s also making more work for post offices and contributing to delays in determining election winners.

Results were delayed this week in Kentucky and New York as both states were overwhelmed by huge increases in mail ballots. Both states are now giving voters extra time after Election Day to return mail ballots, as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday.

“What we don’t need is more chaos in the chaos,” said Wendy Fields, executive director of the voting rights advocacy group The Democracy Initiative, who said worries about undue strain at the post office only exacerbate larger struggles against voter suppression.

President Donald Trump opposes expanding voting by mail, arguing it will trigger fraud, even though there’s no evidence that will happen. Trump and many of his administration’s leading voices frequently vote absentee themselves.

The president has also called the Postal Service “a joke” and says package shipping rates should be at least four times higher for heavy users like Amazon. But shipping and packages are actually a top revenue generator for the Postal Service, and critics say Trump is merely looking to punish Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in retaliation for unflattering coverage in The Washington Post, which the billionaire Bezos also owns.

Trump has acknowledged larger political calculations are at work, tweeting that expanding vote by mail will “LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has suggested the Republican president’s opposition to absentee voting and criticism of the Postal Service may help him “steal” the election.

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 200,000-plus employees, said the Trump administration is “shamefully trying to use the crisis to carry out an agenda” of privatization, which would ultimately “break up the Postal Service and sell it.”

Jim Condos, Vermont’s Democratic secretary of state, said “our democracy depends on a reliable post office.”

“Mid-election year is not the time to see changes in the dependability of the Postal Service, especially during a year when our country is experiencing a pandemic and health crisis, which will dramatically increase the necessity of voting by mail,” he said.

The Postal Service predates the United States, created by the Second Continental Congress in July 1775. Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general.

Unlike its private competitors, the Postal Service cannot refuse to make costly deliveries to especially hard-to-reach addresses. Still, much of its budgetary concerns stem from a 2006 law requiring the agency to fully fund retiree health benefits for the next 75 years.

It normally operates without taxpayer funds. Amid the pandemic, however, it lost $4.5 billion in fiscal year 2020’s second quarter. Congress approved a $10 billion line of credit for the agency as part of March’s sweeping economic rescue package. Since then, though, the Postal Service and the Treasury Department have had discussions about requirements to extend those loans.

Neither side will say publicly what’s being negotiated, but Trump has made his feelings clear. A 2018 Treasury task force also recommended the Postal Service increase package rates and cut labor costs. A second coronavirus aid package passed in May by the Democratic-controlled House includes $25 billion in direct aid for the Postal Service, but the GOP-majority Senate hasn’t passed its own version.

In the meantime, more than 3,420 of the Postal Service’s 630,00-plus employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and some have died. While package deliveries have increased as Americans stay home, mail volumes plummeted – as much as 30 percent, according to the American Postal Workers Union.

In April, then-Postmaster General Megan Brennan said the agency could be out of money by Sept. 30. Last week, Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and GOP fundraiser who’s donated to Trump, succeeded Brennan.

Postal Service spokesperson David Partenheimer said more recent trends “indicate that our 2020 financial performance will be better than our early scenarios predicted,” though he said much remains uncertain.

“Our current financial condition is not going to impact our ability to deliver election and political mail this year,” Partenheimer said.

But Condos, who was president of the National Association of Secretaries of State from July 2018 to July 2019, fears keeping such a promise could force the Postal Service to cut back on routine services, which may see voting materials prioritized over regular mail.

The pressure is also on since absentee ballots for overseas military members are sent 45 days before Election Day, or Sept. 18 – less than three months away.

“This whole idea that we have until November to decide, we really don’t,” Condos said.

The Postal Service consistently ranks as Americans’ favorite federal agency, with recent approval ratings topping 90 percent. The issue is also one that doesn’t break down neatly along ideological lines. Congressional Democrats are clamoring to “save the post office,” and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are among those proposing boosting Postal Service profits by having it expand into banking services, which it provided for decades until the 1960s.

Rural Republicans like Alaska Rep. Dan Young have also called for defending the post office. Still, some conservatives say tying its funding to Election Day jitters is a partisan ploy.

“It’s just casting seeds of doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome,” said Tom Ridge, the Republican former Pennsylvania governor who heads VoteSafe, a bipartisan group working with state and local officials to expand and strengthen vote-by-mail options. “It’s very sad, it’s very disappointing, it’s very troubling.”

Arkansas PBS Commission discusses membership, pandemic's impact

The Arkansas PBS Commission met on Tuesday to discuss PBS’s membership and the impact of the coronavirus.

“I think we would be having a record year if not for COVID,” Arkansas PBS Foundation Membership Manager Pat Pearce said.

Pearce said PBS lost some of its membership due to the pandemic.

“A lot of folks had to drop their support because of losing their jobs or their business being closed,” Pearce said.

Despite losing some of its members, PBS’s overall membership increased. Pearce said PBS’s membership is currently 21,508 people.

“Our number of members has reached a level that we have not seen since the early nineties,” Pearce said.

PBS gained many of its new members this year.

“We normally will bring in about 2,000 members between March 1 and the end of the June pledge drive,” Pearce said.

PBS was challenged by the Susan Howarth Foundation to gain 3,000 members during this time period; PBS exceeded this goal by bringing in 3,120 new members. Since PBS achieved the goal, the Susan Howarth Foundation donated $20,000 to PBS.

PBS plans to keep expanding its membership.

“Our membership goal is to double the membership in four years,” Arkansas PBS Chief Operating Officer Ed Leon said.

Leon recognized that this goal is lofty, but he knows increasing membership will benefit the organization.

Another way PBS receives support is through its sustainer program. “Our sustainer program is reaching new heights,” Pearce said.

According to the Arkansas PBS website, members of this program “provide a reliable, steady stream of support for Arkansas PBS by authorizing a monthly or quarterly charge to their credit card or bank account.”

In other business, two new members were welcomed to the commission: Anne Canada and Ann Clemmer. Additionally, Annette Herrington was re-appointed to the commission.

Family files suit following fatal dog attack

Editor’s note: The information from the court filing included in this article gives a graphic account of the injuries sustained in the fatal dog attack that readers may find disturbing.

One of the dogs that attacked and killed a 9-year-old Mount Vernon boy last month had acted aggressively toward the Taylor family more than once, according to a wrongful death suit filed against Trey Wyatt and his girlfriend, Lisa Young.

Trey Edgar Wyatt, 26, is currently behind bars without bond and facing a felony tampering with physical evidence charge after his dogs reportedly attacked and killed 9-year-old Robert “Robby” Taylor on May 28. The sheriff’s office has said it also expects Wyatt to be charged with “multiple county ordinances including: nuisance animals and hazardous animals running at large, liability of animals that attack a human being and keeping of a dangerous dog.”

Though formal charges regarding the apparent dog attack were not filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court as of Thursday, defense attorney Robert Newcomb has requested the court issue a gag order in his client’s cases after the Taylor family filed a wrongful death suit against Wyatt and his girlfriend.

The defense attorney said he believes attorneys on both sides of the case and the sheriff’s office should be barred “from making any comments to the media or in public” regarding Wyatt’s prior assault case, the pending tampering with physical evidence case and the recently-filed civil suit.

The Vilonia man was charged with aggravated assault, a Class D felony, and second-degree interference with emergency communication, a Class B misdemeanor, in December 2019 after he reportedly choked and pinned his pregnant girlfriend down onto a bed.

Attorney David R. Hogue, who represents Robby’s parents – Robert and Lyndsay Taylor – filed a civil complaint against Wyatt and Young on Monday. The complaint accuses the couple of wrongful death, strict liability, negligence and two counts each of trespassing and nuisance.

The day Robby was attacked by Wyatt and Young’s dogs “began as normal,” according to the complaint.

When the 9-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister woke up on May 28, the two “piled up blankets and pillows in front of the TV and started to watch a movie.”

Robby had two sisters.

The family’s dog started barking as the two children watched the movie, so they went to see what it was barking at when they found an abandoned puppy in the family’s carport. Soon after the two brought the puppy inside, the 10-year-old and Robby’s 15-year-old sister gave it a bath “because it was covered in fleas and ticks.”

While his sisters cleaned the puppy, Robby asked his mother if he could go outside to check the mail.

Robby never returned from the 300-yard walk from the mailbox to the Taylor family’s home.

The young boy was attacked by “two or more dogs” at the end of the family’s driveway. One of the dogs was the same brown pit bull that broke a glass door at the family’s home two weeks prior. In the previous incident (on May 14), two pit bulls broke a glass door on the family’s porch as they tried “to get into a metal cage containing chickens,” the complaint states. The complaint also points out that the brown pit bull seen running away from Robby’s mangled body on May 28 is the same dog that killed 20 chickens on the property and “growled and acted aggressively” toward a young boy.

Wyatt’s girlfriend previously told Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office deputies that the dogs’ shock collars stopped working and that she “had ordered replacements.”

When Robby’s body was found in a field near the Taylors’ home, the county coroner noted his injuries were consistent with injuries caused by a dog’s canine teeth.

According to the wrongful death complaint, investigative reports show that Robby attempted to fight off the vicious dogs.

“Robby was unable to overcome the dogs and eventually fell in the field,” the complaint reads in part. “The dogs ripped his face apart, including detaching his right eye and removing it completely from the socket. There was major trauma to the left side of his face as well. There were severe and deep wounds to his right upper arm, as well as puncture wounds on the right arm, neck, and chest areas. Robby succumbed to his injuries while laying in a puddle of water in the field.”

Robby asked to check the mail around 9 a.m.

His mother called 911 at 9:17 a.m. as she and the boy’s sisters searched for him. Robby’s mother found his shoes and the umbrella he was carrying when he left to check the mail in the driveway, and his 15-year-old sister found his “bloody and mangled body” around 9:29 a.m.

“[The 15-year-old] screamed when she came upon the gruesome sight, alerting Lyndsay that she had found something truly terrible. She, too, went into the field and saw her child’s mauled body. She stayed with him until well after law enforcement and first responders arrived,” the complaint states.

Since Robby was killed by the vicious dog attack, his parents and sisters “have suffered from nightmares and difficulty sleeping,” Hogue said.

Robby’s parents and his 15-year-old sister, who saw the boy’s maimed body up close, now suffer from flashbacks and also have panic attacks.

The Taylors are seeking a jury trial against Wyatt and his girlfriend, alleging the two caused the wrongful death of their 9-year-old son.

“The value of this young man’s life, the future lost, and the lifelong anguish of the siblings and parents is far too great to put into words,” Hogue wrote in the complaint against Wyatt and Young.

A motion hearing regarding the wrongful death complaint and the defense team’s request for a gag order is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. July 1 in Faulkner County Circuit Court.