CAMDEN The Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by some Republican legislators challenging a mask mandate and other restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was within his authority under state law and legislative rules when his administration issued the restrictions. The lawsuit filed by 18 GOP lawmakers argued the restrictions required legislative approval.
Arkansas was among a handful of states that didn’t issue a stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic, but Hutchinson has mandated wearing a mask in public and other restrictions including capacity limits on bars and restaurants. Hutchinson on Tuesday ruled out rolling back the state’s reopening, despite a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Hutchinson said he was pleased with Griffen’s decision, which he said would reassure the public about the state’s actions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.
“That quick decision, I think, will clearly give great confidence and will allow us to proceed with the steps that we need to handle this emergency,” Hutchinson told reporters.
Republican Rep. Dan Sullivan, who led the lawsuit effort, said the plaintiffs would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“The plaintiffs here represent all of the people of Arkansas who seek to maintain some control over their own lives pursuant to their God-given rights as recognized in the Constitution, and we’re hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree,” he said in a statement.
Arkansas ranks 10th in the country for new virus cases per capita, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The Department of Health on Wednesday reported 1,079 new probable and confirmed cases, bringing the state’s total since the pandemic began to 95,246.
The state’s COVID-19 fatalities increased by 23 to 1,634. Hospitalizations dropped by 18 to 587, two days after hitting a record high.
Hutchinson said the state has adequate hospital capacity, though he has talked with health officials about increasing capacity if hospitalizations continue to rise. A quarter of the state’s 9,120 hospital beds and about 13% of its 1,054 intensive care unit beds are available, according to the Department of Health. There are 242 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.
The governor also detailed plans to distribute rapid coronavirus tests. The state currently has 100,000 of the Abbott BinaxNOW tests ordered by the federal government and expects to receive 50,000 a week.
Under Hutchinson’s plan, more than half of the tests will go to K-12 schools as weekly screenings for staff. Education Secretary Johnny Key said priority for the tests’ distribution will be for districts where there have been a high number of cases in the community or in the schools, as well as districts that have had to move to online classes because an outbreak or where numbers indicate a hot spot is developing.
The state’s Human Development Centers and the Department of Corrections will each receive 20% of the tests for their employees, while another 5% will be held in reserve for health care workers and others as needed. Hutchinson said election workers will have a priority for the tests at the state’s local health offices.
“This is the first time we’ve developed a plan for sentinel testing, or surveillance testing, that goes beyond simply symptomatic or exposure type testing,” Hutchinson said. “So this is a new world for us that will give us new benefits for this testing.”