July 10, 2020
Arkansas Advocates’ updates are becoming bi-weekly. Starting today, we will publish here every other Friday.
Going Back to School in Arkansas
Governor Hutchinson announced on Thursday that he would delay the start of the school year (originally August 13) by more than a week. Schools will open from August 24-26, instead. School districts had indicated that they needed more time to plan for what might become a “blended” learning environment — both online and in-person instruction. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about safety measures, timelines and other possible changes that have parents, teachers and students concerned and confused about how the school year could happen safely. For example, school districts will decide individually whether to require face coverings; there is no state mandate. The Department of Education released new guidance on Thursday, a seven-page document called “Response Levels for On-Site Learning.” It and other education documents regarding COVID-19 response are at this site.
Arkansas COVID-19 Cases
COVID hospitalizations have risen dramatically recently. On Thursday, 394 people with the virus were in the hospital, an increase of more than 45 percent over one week.
The number of Arkansans testing positive for COVID-19 is continuously increasing and becoming more widespread, with at least one positive case in every county. This week increased numbers and higher percentages of positive cases were reported in several new counties. As of Thursday, Arkansas had 26,052 positive COVID-19 cases with 5,751 active cases. A total of 309 Arkansans had died from the virus.
A UAMS College of Public Health report released this week showed that predictive models indicate that Arkansas could have from about 112,000 to 186,000 active cases at the end of October. It also found Arkansas’s greatest COVID-19 disease burden is in smaller, rural counties. Rural areas have limited resources to provide acute or critical care. Residents of such areas could therefore be at increased risk for insufficient treatment. The limited ability of the healthcare system capacity in rural areas may result in higher numbers of patients being sent to hospitals in larger communities that are better equipped to serve them. The counties with the highest number of cases per 40,000 people are Yell, Sevier, and Lee counties, followed by Chicot and Washington.
COVID-19 Valid Excuse to Vote Absentee this November
Last week, Governor Hutchinson announced that health concerns around COVID-19 would be a valid excuse to vote absentee as per Secretary of State John Thurston’s interpretation of the absentee voting excuses currently allowed. The Governor said he is in full agreement with that interpretation. To vote absentee, the state requires that voters provide one of four “excuses” for why they will not be voting at their polling place. Voters will still be able to vote at their polling place on election day or vote at early voting sites for two weeks before election day. The Secretary of State said the November election will look the same as past elections, except for people wearing masks and gloves and using hand sanitizer. Polling places will also be using disposable pens. These products are being purchased by the state using election safety funds that were provided through the federal CARES Act. The Secretary of State noted a few key deadlines for absentee voting.
If you would like to vote absentee, you must apply by October the 27th through your County Clerk’s office and the ballot must be received by the County Clerk’s office by 7:30pm on election day. To vote in Arkansas you must be a registered voter, and the deadline to register is October 5th for the November election. For more information and to print a ballot request form click here.
Arkansas receives nearly $10 billion in federal funds each year based in whole or in part on census data. And just a 1 percent undercount of Arkansans could cost the state $1 billion over the next decade. Right now, only 56.5% of households in the state have completed the census. Arkansas Counts has started an effort called “Move the Count in Your Community” to help boost our response rate as we near the deadline to complete the census October 31st. In August, census takers will begin going door-to-door to help people complete the census who have not done so online at 2020census.gov, by phone, or on the paper form. Learn how you can help Move the Count. These twenty counties have the lowest census response rates and are critical places to help Move the Count: Lee | Bradley | Lincoln | Searcy | Phillips | Dallas | Madison | Johnson | Prairie | Chicot |St. Francis | Marion | Scott | Montgomery | Lafayette | Monroe | Woodruff | Calhoun | Izard | Newton.
Census Volunteer Opportunity
Arkansas Counts is looking for volunteers to help call and text Arkansans to encourage them to participate in the Census. Join them the week of July 27 to phone and text bank Arkansas residents to encourage everyone to GET COUNTED in the 2020 U.S. Census. They’ll provide the training and tools to ensure a complete and accurate count for Arkansas.
Little Rock Hate Crime Law
This week the City of Little Rock became the first city in the state to pass a hate crime ordinance. The law creates fines and jail sentences for crimes that target people based on their race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Read more from the Associated Press. Arkansas does not have a state hate crimes law, but Senator Jim Hendren and Representative Nicole Clowney have drafted hate crimes legislation to be considered in the 2021 state General Assembly session. Read more from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
SNAP During the Pandemic
A coalition of advocates across the country are urging Congress to include a 15 percent increase to the maximum monthly SNAP benefit to assist families in need during the pandemic. According to data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), during FY 2019, 1 in 9 Arkansans participated in the SNAP program. That number has since increased due to the economic downturn associated with the ongoing pandemic. CBPP argues many families are struggling to keep food on the table and a 15 percent increase would help lighten their burden.
Cities Can Implement Mask Ordinances
Despite no statewide order requiring masks be worn, the Governor signed a proclamation last week that allows Arkansas cities to require masks be worn in public places. Several cities including Little Rock, Rogers, and Hot Springs have already passed such ordinances.
During a meeting this week of the Legislative Early Childhood Wellbeing Caucus, Dr. Jose Romero, Chief Medical Officer for the Arkansas Department of Health reported 27,256 fewer vaccines were administered between January and June 2020 than the same time period in 2019. Dr. Chad Rogers from the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has warned about the dangers of delaying childhood vaccines.
Medicaid Work Reporting Requirements
The Trump administration will continue working to reinstate work-reporting requirements in the Arkansas Works health insurance program. During Attorney General Barr’s visit to Little Rock on Thursday, Gov. Hutchinson told reporters that the Trump Administration would continue the appeal of two lower court rulings regarding the Medicaid-funded program. The case is now on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arkansas’s work reporting requirements halted last year after a court ruled they were illegal, but not before 18,000 Arkansans lost their health care coverage.
Signatures Submitted for Ballot Measures
Monday was the deadline to submit petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s office to put citizen-led measures on the ballot this November. A campaign led by Arkansas Voters First to allow voters to decide if the state should create a citizens’ redistricting commission to redraw voting districts for the next decade submitted some 100,000 signatures. Signatures were also submitted for a petition that would create an open primary and ranked-choice voting system, which would allow Arkansas voters to rank candidates by their preference instead of simply voting for one candidate. Read more from Talk Business.
Hires up, layoffs down but more economic pain is on the horizon
The most recent jobs numbers showed that unemployment fell nationally to 11.1 percent in June from 13.3 percent in May. Despite these gains, the labor market was still down almost 15 million jobs from February. This recovery is partially because of relaxed social distancing mandates from state and local governments and partially because of the size and scope of the economic aid that was included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. However, these relaxed guidelines have led to a rise in COVID cases and a subsequent slow down or reversal of the so-called “re-opening.” Read more here.