Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday he was extending his coronavirus disaster emergency for another 60 days, which means that by the time it expires Feb. 28, the declaration will have been in place for almost a full year.
The governor also disclosed that the state had 1,449 new cases confirmed by lab testing and 1,269 probable cases from quick antigen tests. There were also 66 new deaths disclosed Tuesday, including deaths in Craighead, Greene, Lawrence, Poinsett, Mississippi and Randolph Counties.
The latest numbers available Wednesday afternoon showed that the Arkansas Department of Health was reporting 4,350 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Greene County. The number of total active cases in the county was 332, and there have been 51 deaths in the county due to the virus.
Statewide on Wednesday there were 3,184 new COVID-19 cases reported with a total of 21,853 active cases, 1,174 hospitalized, and 34 additional deaths for a total of 3,637.
“We continue to see high numbers of new cases and capacity pressures on our hospitals,” Hutchinson said in a prepared statement on Wednesday. “I urge everyone to be careful as we enter another holiday to reduce the virus spread, and we need to support each other as Arkansans while we work to distribute the vaccine.”
This week Hutchinson also acknowledged state legislators will have a say in whether the full declaration stays in effect. Legislators across the country have waged challenges to governors’ emergency powers during the pandemic. In Arkansas, a circuit judge ruled in October the state’s Health Secretary Jose Romero, acting under an emergency declaration by the governor, acted within the powers delegated to him by the Arkansas General Assembly.
Representatives Dan Sullivan and Brandt Smith of Jonesboro were among 18 lawmakers who brought the lawsuit in September.
As all 50 states gear up for legislative sessions, Arkansas and surrounding states are considering legislation to reduce governors’ powers.
Hutchinson has used the Emergency Powers Act to impose a mask mandate, capacity limits and other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
“I fully expect the General Assembly to address this issue and I would ask them to measure whether we should extend the emergency,” Hutchinson said at his weekly coronavirus news conference. “I would expect their action on this, just as I asked them to affirm the emergency before Dec. 30. They wanted to delay that until the regular session, which is their prerogative … We will work with the legislature as to where it goes from there.”
The Associated Press reports the GOP supermajority in the Tennessee Legislature has created a panel to study gubernatorial emergency powers and has come up with a number of suggestions to allow lawmakers to end, override or have the final say on the extension of a health-related state of emergency or executive order.
In Missouri, Republican lawmakers who hold large majorities in both chambers already have filed about a dozen bills that would limit the authority of state or local officials to impose restrictions.
On another issue, Hutchinson said the coronavirus stimulus package President Trump signed over the Christmas weekend includes about $850 million to support education activities, including public education, higher education and even money for such things as construction projects to make school facilities safer in the pandemic.
He also expressed disappointment that distribution of the new vaccines has been slower than expected, especially in nursing homes. Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Healthcare Association, said member nursing homes must first have consent from residents or their guardians to administer the vaccines.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, was the only Arkansas congressman who voted in favor of new legislation that would increase COVID-19 relief checks to $2,000, meeting Trump’s demand for bigger payments. The bill passed overwhelmingly, 275-134, and now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where the outcome is highly uncertain.
“Last night, I voted in support of additional support for families who have struggled and been affected by a virus that was unleashed on us by the CCP,” Crawford said in a Tweet Tuesday. “(Nancy) Pelosi’s disgusting politics delayed this support and caused financial harm and stress that was totally unnecessary.”
The AP said the vote was a stunning turn of events from just days ago, when House Republicans blocked Trump’s demands during a Christmas Eve session. After Trump spent days fuming from his private club in Florida, where he is spending the holidays, dozens of Republicans preferred to link with Democrats rather than buck the outgoing president. Senators were set to return to session.
House Speaker Pelosi declared, “Republicans have a choice: Vote for this legislation or vote to deny the American people the bigger paychecks they need.”
Daily Press Editor Steve Gillespie contributed to this report.