By Ray King

Governor Asa Hutchinson on Thursday said he was concerned about the large gatherings of people in Arkansas who have been protesting the death of George Floyd could lead to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

“I hope they’re all careful and mindful and they can’t look at this and say we’re back to normal because we are not,” he said.

Hutchinson said that while many of those protesting are wearing masks, they are coming into close contact with each other which can spread the virus.

The Governor said over the past 24 hours, 358 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Arkansas, with 234 of them in the northwestern part of the state. Specifically, Washington County had 111 new cases and Benton County reported 92 new cases.

There are currently 137 people hospitalized, that’s one less than on Wednesday and nine additional deaths have been reported, bringing the state’s total to 151.

State Health Officer Dr. Nate Smith said five to six of those deaths occurred in nursing homes that had not been reported previously.

Smith said of the 8.425 cases of COVID-19 in the state, 2,355 are considered active.

After Washington and Benton Counties, other counties that reported 10 or more new cases were Pulaski with 34, Crittenden with 12 and Sevier with 10. All the other counties in the state reported nine or less.

Smith also said 50 percent of the new cases had Spanish surnames.

The Governor also raised the possibility that various regions of the state might be able to move to Phase 2 at different times, based on the number of new cases in that region, the number hospitalized and the positivity rate after testing. He said he would talk more about that next week.,