COVID-19 And Policy Update, Vol. 21

October 16, 2020

Early voting begins Monday. There are several ways to exercise your right, and we urge you to make your voting plan today. More information on that and other issues are in this edition of the Arkansas Advocates policy update, which will arrive in your inbox every other Friday.

It’s time to vote

Early voting starts on Monday, and you can go to VoterView to find the early voting locations in your area. You can also see a sample ballot so you can research the issues and races you’ll be voting on before heading to the polls. If you are voting absentee, you can also track the status of your ballot on VoterView.

Early voting takes place between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m, Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Early voting ends at 5 p.m. on the Monday prior to the election.

Not sure about the ballot issues this election? The Public Policy Center at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service has issued its 2020 Ballot Issues Voter Guide, which comes out every two years and offers an unbiased look at the questions and how they would change the Arkansas Constitution.

Arkansas Advocates created a Voters’ Guide that includes important dates, questions for candidates, and organizations to call if you are denied access to your polling place, are turned away from voting, or have other issues when exercising your right to vote.

Infection spread at record highs

Arkansas hit a record for new, confirmed COVID-19 infections yesterday, with 1,278 people testing positive for the virus. The seven-day average of confirmed infections hit a new high this week (an average of 911), along with a new record for hospitalizations in Arkansas (608 on Monday). Compared to the rest of the country, we are 8th in per-capita cases since the pandemic began. And we ranked 2nd in deaths per capita for the week of Oct. 3-9, according to a White House Task Force report out this week.

The number of schools in the “red zone” doubled since last week, according to an analysis by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. It counted 26 school districts with 50 or more new infections per 10,000 residents. Most of the new districts on the list are in rural areas. The list and more information is available here on the ACHI website.

Emergency restrictions continue

This week, Gov. Hutchinson extended the state’s health emergency by 60 days. And a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of legislators that had sought to overturn the health directives that are part of the emergency declaration, including a statewide mask requirement. Judge Wendell Griffen ruled Wednesday, saying that the governor’s orders were within his emergency powers granted by the Legislature. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, led by Rep. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, told reporters that they would appeal.

State will begin widespread rapid antigen testing

Prisons, state human development centers and many school districts will begin weekly testing of employees next month, Gov. Hutchinson announced this week. This surveillance testing will begin with 100,000 new disposable antigen test kits that the state received from the federal government. Most of the supply will be used for weekly testing of school employees, with priority in districts in which COVID-19 infections are higher or in areas that are deemed to be possible emerging hotspots. All employees at prisons and human development centers will be tested weekly. Another 50,000 of the BinaxNOW test kits are expected to be administered weekly in Arkansas. The federal government bought a supply of 150 million of the kits, and 900,000 are designated for use here.

Budget hearings begin, rules set

Members of the Arkansas Legislature have begun discussing how the state should spend its revenue in fiscal 2022, the budget year that begins in July. They started off several weeks of budget hearings with a lengthy discussion of the rules, including the requirement that lawmakers wear masks in order to participate. Though some lawmakers objected, ultimately the mask requirement and other rules passed overwhelmingly. In the committee room, members’ seats are surrounded on three sides by Plexiglass, another effort to prevent the spread of infection.

You can watch budget hearings, and most other committee meetings, on the legislative website.

Proposal to reduce state revenue in a pandemic

Draft legislation would reduce state general revenue by $115 million a year during a time of great economic uncertainty. Rep. Joe Jett’s draft proposal would reduce the state’s top individual income tax rate from 5.9 percent gradually to 5.5 percent by 2023. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obtained a copy of the proposal from the Division of Revenue and Finance and ran a story about it in Sunday’s newspaper.

Millions more living in poverty since May

The New York Times reported on two recent studies, one by Columbia University and another by the Universities of Chicago and Notre Dame, that found that since May, between 6 million and 8 million more people in the United States are now living in poverty. Both sets of researchers see the need for a new round of stimulus legislation. Columbia University concluded that a previous stimulus package, The CARES Act, had kept 18 million people out of poverty. The Chicago/Notre Dame study found that the poverty rate is rising particularly fast for Black Americans. Black and Hispanic people are twice as likely as White people to live in poverty. Not only are Black and Hispanic Americans more likely to work in industries that were impacted by the recession, they also face structural barriers that prevent them from receiving emergency benefits.

The research teams found that the number of children living in poverty is increasing drastically, with 2.5 million more children newly living in poverty since May.

Grants for rental assistance available

Arkansans who have lost income because of the pandemic may apply for rental and housing assistance through organizations funded by the new COVID-19 Emergency Solutions Grant. The Arkansas Department of Human Services announced the $23 million program aimed to assist those who are homeless or at risk of losing their current housing by helping to pay for rent, re-housing those who are homeless, or providing emergency shelter. Here is the list of organizations and local governments that are accepting applications for assistance.

SNAP online payments are live now

SNAP recipients can now purchase food online at participating retailers. The program had originally been announced in July after the state received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it is now live. Right now, people who are enrolled in SNAP can purchase food online from Walmart. Amazon is aiming to become a qualified retailer by the end of November. SNAP funds cannot be used for membership or delivery fees, however. Nearly 400,000 Arkansans are enrolled in SNAP. You can learn more about the new online purchasing option here.

Children’s uninsured rate way up

An estimated 43,000 Arkansas children were uninsured last year, a number that has increased about 43 percent since 2016, according to a new report released by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. Arkansas’s experience is part of a national trend that left an estimated 726,000 more children without health coverage nationwide since our country achieved an historic low number of uninsured children. Much of the coverage gains of the Affordable Care Act for children have now been eliminated. Coverage losses have been concentrated in the South and West and have been largest for White and Hispanic children. Read more on our blog.

The Census is really over now

The confusion over the census ended this morning when the U.S. Census Bureau shut down the website and call-in lines for households to complete their forms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the administration could end the count. Census Bureau staff and census advocates had to deal with many attempts by the Trump administration to undermine the count throughout the process. They included budget cuts, an effort to include a question on the form asking for citizenship status, defying the constitutional requirement to count each person living in the United States for purposes of reapportioning congressional seats, and changing the census deadline just a few months before the census was set to end. The Census Bureau is touting a 99.9 percent count of households in the country. However, it is unclear what that actually means. NPR reported in August that, in the Bureau’s attempt to rush the census to a close, they were relying more on back-up methods of counting, such as asking neighbors for data on a household, and skimping on quality checks.

Despite these hurdles, Arkansas Advocates is proud of the work of partners throughout the state that were part of the Arkansas Counts coalition. Due in part to the work of the coalition, Arkansas had a self-response rate for the census that was close to the 2010 census even though outreach efforts had to occur during a pandemic.

COVID-19 relief legislation could be on the table

It’s still not clear whether the two sides in Washington can come together on any type of coronavirus relief legislation before Election Day, or even before the end of the year. Senator Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate will consider a new coronavirus relief bill next week, but that it would be narrow in scope and targeted toward businesses. Democrats are pushing for a much bigger relief package. Meanwhile, President Trump indicated on Twitter that he wanted lawmakers to “go big” on a stimulus package after saying last week that the White House no longer wanted to work toward passing a bill.

Deadline extended to November 21 to request stimulus payment

Tens of thousands of Arkansans have missed out on the stimulus payments that were intended to provide economic relief in the spring. They and millions of Americans have not yet received the $1,200 payment because they did not file federal taxes in 2018 or 2019 and did not automatically receive them. They must go to the IRS economic payment website and click on the “Non-Filers” button to sign up to receive the payment. The deadline has been extended to November 21.

Help us spread the word to those who may be affected. In Arkansas,143,000 people did not automatically receive the payments. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has created communications materials, including fliers and social media graphics you can use to raise awareness. The resources can be found at the bottom of this webpage.

African Americans and COVID-19 forum

Arkansas Advocates hosted a forum this week to discuss how African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The discussion included the systemic inequities in health care and insurance coverage that have led to the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and outcomes, as well as what can be done to improve health outcomes for African American Arkansans. You can watch the recording here.

AACF’s 2020 Friends of Children Annual Luncheon is Tuesday

We’re honoring some great folks at our first ever virtual Friends of Children Luncheon. This year, we’re privileged to honor Betty Guhman, Morril H. Harriman and Judge Joyce Williams Warren for their important work on behalf of our state’s children, and for all they’ve done to ensure that kids in Arkansas have the resources and opportunities they need to be healthy and successful. We are also pleased to recognize the late John W. Walker with a special posthumous tribute.

Tuesday, October 20 at 11:00am
Learn more and register

More upcoming virtual events

Arkansas Kids Count Coalition, Children’s Policy Summit
Tuesday, November 17 to Thursday, November 19
Learn more and register


COVID-19 Resources

Racial Equity Resources