NOTE: This story was published on the morning of March 18. Please visit arkansasonline.com/coronavirus/ for the latest updates.
WEST MEMPHIS -- For the first time in almost a week, Arkansas officials briefing reporters on the coronavirus on Tuesday said they didn't have any new cases to announce.
Still, to prevent further spread of the virus, Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the state's three casinos to close for two weeks. He also announced that he was easing requirements for applying for unemployment benefits to help people who lose their jobs as businesses close or scale back operations.
Schools, which now are closed, should reopen as planned after what would have been spring break, the governor said.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Supreme Court late Tuesday afternoon ordered the suspension of most in-person proceedings from today through April 3. The order did not apply to civil and criminal jury trials that were already underway Tuesday. More than 60 courts in the state had already cut back on operations to reduce the chance of exposure to infected people.
"I know this is a tremendous hardship in the eastern Arkansas community because I believe we have 900 hourly workers that are going to be impacted" by the casino closure order, Hutchinson said.
"We understand the hardship, but it is necessary for us to take the right public health measures to get over this hump," he said.
Arkansas' casinos are Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs. Oaklawn had already announced Sunday that its casino would close through March 30.
A patient at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff on March 11 became the first Arkansan to test positive for covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, prompting Hutchinson to declare a public health emergency.
Since then, 21 other people have tested positive. One person, a Little Rock resident, got the illness from an unknown source and was tested while hospitalized at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center. That is the state's only identified case so far of "community transmission," meaning the source has yet to be identified and is someone who could be spreading the virus to other people.
The others who have tested positive are believed to have gotten the illness in another state or a foreign country or from contact with someone who has tested positive and is known to public health officials.
All those who have tested positive are being kept in isolation at home or in a hospital.
On Tuesday, for the first time, the Department of Health's website listed Cleveland, Lincoln and Desha counties as having at least one resident with the virus.
Health Department Director Nate Smith said that reflected previously announced cases connected to the hospitalized Pine Bluff patient.
Those cases were originally listed as being in Jefferson County rather than where the infected people live, Health Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said.
The others with infections include between five to nine residents each of Pulaski and Jefferson counties, and less than five people each in Saline, Garland and Cleburne counties.
Tests were being conducted Tuesday on an additional 41 people, and 310 people were under home quarantines and Health Department monitoring after having contact with someone known to be infected or returning from Arkansas from a country with a large outbreak.
From early February through Tuesday, tests of 197 people in the state had come back negative.
As the state and commercial laboratories expand their testing capacity, it is likely that more people with the illness will be identified, Smith said.
"It's comforting that we're not having explosive numbers, and the number of negative cases has been almost 200," he said.
In the northern Mexican state of Sonora, government officials announced Monday their first confirmed case of coronavirus, saying the victim is a 72-year-old musician who had recently visited Arkansas, as well as Chicago and Los Angeles.
Officials in Sonora immediately shut down schools at all levels, as well as nightclubs, bars, gyms and casinos.
Mirivel said she didn't have information on the case Tuesday evening.
Hutchinson said he had directed the state Department of Commerce to waive a one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits and a requirement for people receiving benefits to look for jobs.
"Our hope is that this is not a prolonged period that people are out of work" and that people who are laid off will eventually return to work with the same employer, state Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said.
To reduce the risk of spreading the virus, Preston encouraged people to apply online, rather than in person, at ezarc.adws.arkansas.gov or by calling a Division of Workforce Services office.
The virus, which first emerged late last year in Wuhan, China, spreads through respiratory droplets emitted when people sneeze or cough. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Those symptoms have been mild for most people but severe or even deadly for some. The elderly and people with chronic health conditions are considered most at risk.
Concerns about the virus have prompted colleges across the state to switch to online-only classes and Hutchinson to close public schools through spring break.
The Health Department on Monday evening also recommended that dentists suspend all non-urgent dental care through April 3.
Hutchinson said Tuesday that students should be ready to resume classes after the break ends March 30.
"If we have an outbreak or a case, then we'll close the school for a period of time to make sure it's clean and everyone's cared for, but education is going to go on in Arkansas," he said.
Hutchinson has also recommended limiting social gatherings in the state to 50 people or fewer.
But on Monday, the White House coronavirus task force went further, saying gatherings should be limited to groups of 10 or fewer.
The task force also said states should close schools near areas that have community transmission and that states with community transmission should close bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms and other places where people congregate.
Although a case of community transmission has been identified in Arkansas, Hutchinson said, it is not "widespread."
"In my conversations with the Department of Health, it is not to the extent that it would raise a community spread concern," he said.
Nonetheless, in Central Arkansas, many restaurants have stopped dine-in service, and limited sales to delivery and pickup.
Smith said Little Rock hasn't seen "an explosion like some other places have," partly because of measures taken by the city's coronavirus task force. He noted that Mayor Frank Scott Jr. on Monday announced a citywide curfew from midnight to 5 a.m.
Scott spokesman Stephanie Jackson said closing bars and restaurants "is definitely something he's thought of and considered."
"It's just at this time, it's not something that he's done," she said.
Information for this article was contributed by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 03/18/2020