On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered a State of the State, giving updates on unemployment, COVID-19 impact and the economy.
Hutchinson said that since he declared a public health emergency March 11 in Arkansas, there have been “aggressive” and “unprecedented” measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We closed schools, restaurants and the state’s three casinos,” he said. “Barbershops, hair salons, massage therapy clinics and tattoo parlors, all closed. Fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor amusement centers, all closed. State park lodges are closed and we have prohibited overnight camping in our state parks.
“We have limited our gatherings to 10 or fewer. We are practicing social distancing and we have to wear a mask when social distancing is impractical or doesn’t work. We expanded telemedicine. I directed state employees to work remotely when possible. We suggested that companies allow their employees to work remotely as well.”
However, those measures have taken their toll on employment in the state.
“All of this has been done with a realization that these emergency actions have caused people to lose their jobs and their livelihoods,” he said. “It has caused some businesses to close and others to scale back. In each one of these, it is heartbreaking to me and to our state to see our fellow citizens pay the consequences in that fashion.”
Hutchinson said he expects the unemployment number to rise, and is looking at ways to help struggling businesses.
“We have processed over 110,000 (unemployment) claims to date since this emergency occurred in Arkansas,” he said. “For those who have suffered business losses, our message is we’re working to get financial assistance to you. In our bridge loan program, we’ve provided assistance to 130 applicants. These are bridge loans until federal resources come to bear and help these businesses that are soon to arrive.”
And while numerous Arkansans are facing uncertainty of paying their bills, others have contracted COVID-19.
“In Arkansas, today, we have crossed the 1,000 mark for COVID-19 cases,” he said.
Hutchinson said the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been used by the White House in regards to numbers, has Arkansas reaching its peak April 24.
“It’s interesting though that 11 days ago on March 27, the model predicted that we would have 707 deaths in Arkansas,” he said. “On April 6, the model was revised to reduce the predictions on deaths at 279. Yesterday, we in Arkansas were at 18 deaths. Because of social distancing, protective masks and following guidelines, we are working hard to reduce those projections even further. And, that is what we are doing together.”
Hutchinson said that the economic condition of Arkansas is uncertain, having to cut $205 million from anticipated revenue for next year’s budget.
“My administration will take the necessary steps to reduce travel, free state employment numbers and other cost-saving measures,” he said. “We will maintain our commitment to funding public education, public safety and medicaid. But, to do so, we will need to have some reserve funds with flexibility and oversight to be sure there is no gap in essential services to our citizens.”
But, there are positives.
“We have maintained our safety net for our citizens through public benefits that are important through this difficult time,” he said. We have continued to invest in economic growth opportunities, and we have not touched our long-term reserve fund of $152 million because we need those reserve funds for whatever the future brings.”
Though many Arkansans are facing scary times that lie ahead, Hutchinson gave some glimpses on how others are taking care of those in their communities.
“We see neighbors checking on neighbors, making grocery runs for those who can’t leave their house,” he said. “Truckers are driving long hours to ensure the supply chain isn’t broken. Others are providing meals on the road so cross country drivers can have an option to eat. Cafeteria workers are making sandwiches for kids who are counting on school meals, and bus drivers are taking the meals to them as well.”
Finally, Hutchinson gave some hope.
“We will do what Americans and Arkansans have always done,” he said. “We will be strong and we will prevail. Thank you, and especially thank you for your efforts during these difficult times. May God bless the United States of America and the people of Arkansas.”