Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases topped 10,000 on Tuesday as it grew by more than 300 cases for the third-straight day.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, increased by six, to 161, in one of the largest one-day increases so far. The count of cases rose to 10,080.
Meanwhile, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he will make an announcement today about "whether and when" the state will begin its second phase of easing restrictions that were designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
He declined to say whether that approach will include lifting restrictions on some regions before others.
"Obviously we've been studying this very hard," the Republican governor said at his daily news conference on the pandemic, held this time at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff. "I indicated last Friday we're looking at it."
Health Secretary Nate Smith said Tuesday that of the 340 new coronavirus cases in the state, 34 were prison inmates. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/ Stephen Swofford)
He said he "studied it over the weekend."
"We continue to do that, looking at the data," he said.
Hutchinson said Thursday that he was considering a regional approach to lifting restrictions, then backed away from the idea Monday, although he said it might become an option.
Among other changes, going to Phase Two of the reopening plan would allow restaurants to begin using 66% of their seating capacity instead of 33%.
Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, told Hutchinson in a letter that "many in our region intend to move safely to Phase 2" on Friday.
He said the Health Department's restrictions are excessive "as they apply to restaurants, small businesses and nonprofits in our region."
"We can cite multiple examples, if necessary, and believe the directives are confusing, inconsistent, impractical, arbitrary, randomly enforced, unfairly target select industries and cause fear and frustration for consumers and businesses alike," Sullivan said in the letter, which he posted on Facebook on Monday evening.
Hutchinson called it "just one of the many letters I receive."
"I get letters saying, 'You're going too fast. Slow down. Don't open things up,'" he said. "I get letters that say, 'You're going too slow. You've got to open it up quicker.'"
He said he and Health Secretary Nate Smith "try to make decisions based upon the best public health guidance, based upon the data that we see, but also what is needed for the uniqueness of our state."
As for businesses that decide to disregard the Health Department's rules, Hutchinson said, "Many of the businesses are licensed, whether it's a restaurant or a different type of facility.
"If you don't follow the public health guidance, then that could jeopardize your license," he said.
The number of Arkansas patients hospitalized with covid-19 increased by two, to 172. Forty-four of the patients were on ventilators, down from 46 a day earlier.
INMATE CASES GROW
Of the 340 cases that were added to the state's total, Smith said 34 were positive test results from prison inmates. Those are often added to the state's official count several days after the test is performed, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.
A state website indicated the largest increases in total cases were in Washington and Benton counties, where many cases have been linked to outbreaks at poultry plants.
The cases grew by 88, to 1,185, in Washington County and by 79, to 1,090, in Benton County.
At the East Arkansas Regional Unit, the site of the state's most recent outbreak in a prison, near Brickeys in Lee County, the number of inmates listed in Health Department reports as having tested positive grew from one to 29.
Five workers at the prison tested positive earlier, according to Health Department reports. All have recovered.
The department's count of cases in the county grew Tuesday by 48, to 97.
Meanwhile, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Forrest City, 748 inmates were listed as having tested positive, up from 633 on Friday.
The number of cases among workers there remained unchanged at 18. Those workers also were all listed as having recovered.
Four residents at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center near Alexander have also tested positive, state Department of Human Services spokesman Amy Webb said, making it the first state lockup for youthful offenders where cases have been identified among residents.
She said an employee at the facility failed a routine check for fever May 29 and was sent home. A test result that came back positive June 2 showed the employee had the virus.
The department then began testing all residents and employees at the lockup, as well as at all its other lockups. One employee at the Harrisburg Juvenile Treatment Center has tested positive, Webb said.
No other cases have been found among Alexander employees, she said.
The case counts listed on a state website grew by 13 in both Pulaski and Craighead counties, and by 11 in Sevier County. The state's other counties with new cases had increases of fewer than 10.
The number of cases among poultry workers, as tracked in Health Department reports, grew by 123, to 931, from Friday to Monday.
That new total included 543 cases that were still considered active, meaning the person tested positive and had not yet recovered.
A Tyson Foods plant in Clarksville and a Twin Rivers Foods plant in Atkins were the latest added to the list of poultry plants with at least five active cases, raising the total number of sites to 20.
The Tyson plant had 20 cases, including 14 listed as having recovered, and the Twin Rivers plant had 11, including five who had recovered.
Ozark Mountain Poultry of Rogers continued to have the state's largest poultry plant outbreak, with the number of cases growing by 15, to 181. Seventy-six of the workers were listed as having recovered.
At a Pilgrim's Pride plant in De Queen, the number of cases grew by 21, to 132, which includes 65 workers who have recovered.
Among nonpoultry companies, a new outbreak was reported at Park Hill Collection furniture warehouse in Little Rock. Nine workers there have tested positive, according to a Health Department report.
Statewide, 3,044 of cases were considered active, up from 2,955. The active cases Tuesday included 141 nursing home residents and 139 prison inmates.
Sullivan said Tuesday that he thinks Hutchinson has "overreached" in imposing restrictions on restaurants and is infringing on business owners' rights.
He questioned why masks are required for customers in restaurants but not some other businesses, such as supermarkets and convenience stores.
"You can go to Walmart and not wear a mask, pass two or three hundred people, pick up all the apples in the apple bin, leave, and nothing happens," he said.
"But at a restaurant, you can't walk in the door without a mask on. It just doesn't make common sense."
Asked if any business owners have told him they plan to disregard the Health Department's directives Friday, as he indicated in his letter, he first declined to say, then said he didn't know what they will do.
"I talk to all the businesses about their God-given rights, and how I will support them when they stand up for their God-given constitutional rights," he said.
He said there was no reason he picked Friday as the day he said some businesses will go to Phase Two, but indicated he'll be scrutinizing what happens after that day.
"If after the 12th, some people get cited by the Health Department, or the heavy hand comes down, I'm going to pursue committee meetings to delve into that and find out why and how the Department of Health has the authority to do those things," he said.
His Facebook post followed a meeting at a Jonesboro country club Monday with restaurant owners, Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin, Craighead County Judge Marvin Day and other officials.
Day said Sullivan showed the restaurant owners the letter and asked them about their concerns.
The owners cited the inconsistency of the mask requirement, the potential liability for businesses if an infection gets traced back to a restaurant, their financial pressures and health concerns that are causing some customers to stay away, Day said.
Sullivan then asked the owners if they wanted to sign onto the letter, he said.
"I never heard any of those businesses saying that they were intending on opening on Friday to a different standard than what the Department of Health has put out," Day said, adding that he doesn't know what owners may have told Sullivan in private conversations.
Sullivan said the restaurant owners signed "a piece of paper" separate from the letter he sent Hutchinson. He said he wasn't going to disclose the names.
"The original intent was to have people sign the letter, but once they considered the risk they were at, they don't want their names out there," Sullivan said.
Jonesboro city spokesman Bill Campbell said if a restaurant decides to disregard state public health rules, "that will be between the restaurant and the Department of Health."
"It's the governor's decision to make, and whatever the governor decides is what we will do in Jonesboro, I'm sure," Campbell said.
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, distanced himself from Sullivan's letter.
"I don't want to irritate people. I want to work with them," said Ladyman, chairman of the House Public Health, Labor and Welfare Committee.
But he said he does support allowing some regions of the state to move to Phase Two before others.
He noted that Calhoun County in south Arkansas has not had any cases. Seven other counties -- Cleveland, Fulton, Monroe, Montgomery, Newton, Searcy and Woodruff -- didn't have any cases Tuesday that were still considered active.
"I know Asa is talking about that and I understand in the executive position you've got to be more careful than you do in the legislative position, so he's hesitant," Ladyman said.
"But we really need to look hard at regional opening."
The latest deaths added to the state's count included two in Jefferson County, raising its count to 28, and two in Pulaski County, raising its total to 40.
They also included the second death from the virus in Saline County and the fifth in Benton County.
Robert "Ray" Hull, a family medicine doctor in Rogers, died of the virus Saturday, according to his family.
His daughter, Cheryl Hull, announced Dr. Hull's death in a Facebook post to his patients, saying that "our wonderful, loving, irreplaceable, kind compassionate Father passed away from COVID-19."
In a notice to patients, the clinic, which was opened in 1972, said it was closed because of Dr. Hull's passing and that patients would be notified through mail on finding a new family physician.
"Dr. Hull was one of a kind. He will be deeply missed by so many," the notice said. "His impact on his community was profound. He will not be forgotten. His memory lives on in so many of us. We appreciate your patience and understanding during this difficult time."
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., released a statement saying he was "very saddened" by the news of Hull's passing. Boozman called him a "leading figure" in Northwest Arkansas's medical community.
"Ray began practicing medicine in Northwest Arkansas when only a handful of physicians were in the area," said Boozman, an optometrist.
"He was extremely kind to my brother Fay and I as we began our practice in Rogers, and became a dear friend to so many of us in the medical community.
"Not only was he an excellent doctor, but he was also a great example of a life dedicated to love of family, community and the Lord. He touched countless people in so many ways, both professionally and personally.
Hutchinson, at his news conference, said Hull was "my family physician years ago," and an example of "a life well-led that has passed."
"It's just another consequence and reminder to us of the deadly nature of this virus in many circumstances," Hutchinson said. "He fought a very hard-fought battle."
Gavin Lesnick, a spokesman for the state Health Department, said the department conducts contact investigations anytime someone tests positive who may have had close contact with other individuals.
"If we determine there were any close contacts, while the patient was infectious, we reach out to those people and ask them to take steps to prevent the potential spread of the virus, including self-quarantine for 14 days," Lesnick said.
The state's recent deaths also included residents of Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Richardo Ayala, 56, of Little Rock died Monday from covid-19 in the intensive-care unit at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
Ayala was admitted May 2 from St. Mary's Regional Health System in Russellville.
He presented there April 25 with shortness of breath, body aches and fatigue. He tested positive for covid-19 on April 28 and was sent to Little Rock for a higher level of care.
Ayala's health declined and he was placed on a ventilator after a surgical tracheotomy. He had no known history of medical problems, according to the coroner's report.
Dennis Davis, 59, who lived at Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock, died Saturday in the intensive-care unit at Baptist Medical Center in North Little Rock from covid-19, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
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Davis had Down syndrome and a history of congestive heart failure. He was admitted to the hospital June 3 with pneumonia and tested positive.
The nursing home has had one worker test positive for the virus and one death, according to the Health Department.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.