Arkansas to ban some indoor social gatherings due to virus

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas will soon ban indoor social gatherings with more than 10 people to combat a growing number of coronavirus cases in the state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday

The governor said his administration was working on a directive it will soon issue prohibiting the gatherings. The number of people in Arkansas with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, grew to least 301 Wednesday from 232 a day earlier.

Hutchinson said the order is needed to avoid more sweeping, “shelter in place” orders other states have issued. Arkansas has imposed other temporary measures, including closing public schools until April 17 and banning sit-down service at restaurants and bars. The state has also closed barbershops, hair salons and gyms.

“How do you avoid having to go those additional steps as we’ve seen in other states? The answer is, let’s all do our responsibility,” Hutchinson said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause a more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Hutchinson announced plans for the directive shortly after Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott said his city was expanding a curfew it had issued because of the outbreak. The new curfew, which will take effect Thursday, will be in effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The previous curfew began at midnight.

“We cannot do business as usual,” Scott said. The curfew will not apply to people going to or from work.

Hutchinson also issued a proclamation for a special session beginning Thursday to address a $353 million shortfall he said the state faces because of the pandemic. Lawmakers will consider a proposal to move the state’s $173 million surplus into a “COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund” the Republican governor could use with approval of legislative leaders.

The 100-member House will meet at a basketball arena at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for the session instead of the Capitol because of concerns about COVID-19, Speaker Matthew Shepherd said. The 35-member Senate plans to meet at the Capitol, but with restrictions on the number of senators allowed in the chamber. The House and Senate will also take up temporary rules allowing their members to vote by proxy.

Leaders of the majority-Republican Legislature said they believed the rainy day fund proposal had strong support, and hoped to wrap up the session shortly after 12 a.m. Saturday. Shepherd said 37 House members have signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation, while Senate President Jim Hendren said 21 in his chamber have.