By Ray King

Governor Asa Hutchinson on Thursday said that while the number of active COVID-19 cases in Washington and Benton Counties is still high, those numbers are beginning to come down.

At his daily briefing, the Governor said Washington County, which has reported well over 100 daily cases for several days reported 96 in the past 24 hours while Benton County had 45 active cases, one more than Pulaski County. Previously, Benton County’s daily case number was near that of Washington County.

Overall, the state reported 687 new cases of COVID-19, with 168 of them in correctional facilities and another 519 in community settings. There are currently 284 people who are hospitalized and there have been 242 deaths.

State Health Officer Dr. Nate Smith said health department officials are working with the Quachita River Correctional facility in Hot Spring County and with a training academy in Lonoke County to try and eliminate clusters of COVID-19 at those facilities.

The Governor was asked about the announcement Wednesday by the Governor of Texas who said that state was going to hit pause on reopening plans because of an increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations in that state. Hutchinson said Texas was already ahead of Arkansas in its reopening, allowing restaurants for example to open at 75 percent capacity while the maximum capacity in Arkansas is 66 percent.

He went on to say that the state is currently “on pause” and will not move to phase three “until we feel comfortable with the move.”

Hutchinson was also asked about the mandatory wearing of masks verses making the wearing of masks voluntary, as he is currently doing. A reporter covering the press conference compared mandatory wearing of masks to the state’s seat belt law.

The Governor said it took years of education about the value of seat belts before people began to get comfortable with wearing them. The City of Little Rock has talked about legislation requiring the use of masks in public settings which Hutchinson said would go against directives by the State Health Department which recommends the use of masks but does not mandate them.