Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he will call a special session of the Legislature to amend a state law prohibiting mask mandated by state and local governments. If approved, public schools could implement their own mask policies.

Hutchinson said he spoke to state House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, about the special session.

“They expressed to me that it’s going to be a heavy lift to get passage of this in the Legislature but I have confidence that as the Legislature looks at this, they will understand, one, that it is a conservative principle to utilize local decision-making and not everything fits statewide,” Hutchinson said. “And secondly, that this is necessary, really, for providing local school boards the ability to protect those most vulnerable young people, 12 and under, as they go to school.”

Hutchinson also pointed out that Arkansas Children’s Hospital currently has 24 adolescents hospitalized as a result of Covid. Two of those children are on a ventilator and five are in the intensive care unit. Half are under the age of 12 and are not eligible for the Covid vaccination.

There will be no statewide mask mandate and there is no discussion on restrictions or mandates on businesses, according to Hutchinson.

“We have to live with the threat of the virus, the increase in vaccinations, but also we’ve got to continue to do business and provide for our families and there’s not going to be those kind of restrictions here in this state,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone knows what to do, the guidelines are in place. This is all about the children and their health.”

The governor also reinstated the public health emergency declaration, which must be reviewed by the Legislature.

“We are in a public health emergency,” Hutchinson said. “Anytime you’re having staffing shortages in the hospital. Whenever, today, we have I believe it is four Covid patients that are waiting in ambulances to be able to find a hospital to go to, that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis.”

The governor said he is reinstating the public health emergency so the state can seek staffing assistance through an interstate compact for health care facilities across the state. Another reason is to ease licensure requirements for health care professionals to increase hospital staffing. This would allow those who have retired to re-enter service or to speed the entry  into service.

Hutchinson said he contacted the White House Thursday and asked for federal assistance to help the state evaluate and analyze the state’s situation with bed capacity for Covid patients. “They are sending the surge response team to Arkansas to help us evaluate, to strategize, and maximize our current hospital space in Arkansas,” he said.

The governor’s announcements come on the heels of of a spike in new Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Statewide, there were 2,843 new Covid-19 cases and 1,055 currently hospitalized on Thursday. The total number of active cases grew by more than 1,400.

Southeast Arkansas Covid-19 Cases

Ashley County
Total Positive 2,170
Recovered 2,062
Deaths 37
Active 70

Bradley County
Total Positives 1,595
Recovered 1,507
Deaths 33
Active 55

Chicot County
Total Positives 1,663
Recovered 1,601
Deaths 41
Active 21

Cleveland County
Total Positives 1,106
Recovered 1,023
Deaths 28
Active 55

Desha County
Total Positives 1,470
Recovered 1,404
Deaths 23
Active 42

Drew County
Total Positives 2,238
Recovered 2,110
Deaths 47
Active 80

Lincoln County
Total Positives 3,338
Recovered 3,246
Deaths 49
Active 43

— Arkansas Department of Health