Arkansas’ two most prominent elected officials have backgrounds in threat assessment and response, so it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t hesitate to go to war against the COVID-19 coronavirus – and use every weapon at their disposal to do it.
Those two officials would be Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former under secretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, and Sen. Tom Cotton, veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Let’s start with Cotton, who recognized the coronavirus threat back when everyone in Washington was obsessed with impeachment. In late January, he was skipping parts of the trial to advise President Trump on the virus while it was still localized in China. On Jan. 28, Cotton sent a letter to members of Trump’s cabinet urging a ban on commercial flights between the United States and China. On Jan. 29, he was tweeting urgently about the threat. On Jan. 30, he called for a “Manhattan Project-level effort” to develop a vaccine, referring to the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb. He also called the coronavirus “the biggest and most important story in the world,” saying it “could result in a global pandemic.”
Called that one right, didn’t he?
Since then, Cotton has maintained the same focus on the virus that he must have had when guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. On the Senate floor March 16, he called for a ban on all non-essential business activity. This past Wednesday, he said in the Senate that “the China virus will spare none of us, from the high rises of the big cities to the hills of the Ozarks.”
In that speech, he argued against those, including Trump, who want to loosen the country’s social distancing efforts in order to save the economy. He even used a variation of Trump’s comment this week, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” to argue against Trump’s point. Cotton said if the country fails to contain the virus, it will wreck the economy regardless of whether we loosen up.
Cotton also warned that if the country relaxes its efforts now, the health care system could be overwhelmed. Refuting arguments made by others, he said the coronavirus is worse than the flu and that it would be impossible to quarantine only older Americans. Instead of loosening up, he said the United States must use this time to create a new strategy for returning to normal life. But that won’t happen yet.
“The darkest days of this crisis are in all likelihood still ahead of us,” he said in his closing.
Cotton made those comments Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, in the Arkansas Capitol, Hutchinson was announcing that his Department of Health is changing a “guidance” into a “directive” forbidding inside social gatherings of more than 10 people – an extraordinary exercise of power that would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago.
Hutchinson’s prohibition came two days after he ordered the closings of all barber shops and hair salons, which led to an immediate trip to the store by me to purchase clippers. That came after Hutchinson previously had ordered the closure of all restaurant dining rooms, gyms and bars and an extension to April 17 of the school closings he’d already ordered.
These kinds of social distancing efforts, which are happening worldwide, have devastated the economy. Hutchinson called the Arkansas Legislature into special session this week because of the budget holes the epidemic and the response have caused.
In his daily televised press conferences, which are watched online by thousands, the governor has made clear he’s aware of the tradeoff being made for public health at the expense of the economy. But like Cotton, he believes Arkansas’ darkest days regarding this disease are still ahead.
Both the military veteran and the former Department of Homeland Security official seem certain this is how we must combat this threat.
So I guess we’ll all be cutting our own hair for a while, and hopefully staying well.