Arkansas has had a statewide mandate in effect since mid-July that requires people to wear masks when unable to maintain a distance of at least six feet from others. The emergency law to stem the spread of Covid-19 put in place by Gov. Asa Hutchinson requires a warning upon first offense, with additional offenses carrying fines that could range from between $100 to $500.
However, there has been widespread resistance to masks and social distancing in Arkansas even as health authorities warn that rapidly rising rates of new cases, combined with increased hospitalization, put the country at risk for overwhelming the capacity of the healthcare system.
Law enforcement officers, including those in Eureka Springs and Carroll County, have refused to enforce the mask mandate, and apparently that is the norm with law enforcement across the state. Hutchinson said recently that he wasn’t aware of a single citation in the state for not wearing a mask.
Some of the resistance to wearing masks comes from theories that wearing masks is dangerous and that they don’t help protect the wearer from Covid-19.
“The CDC was concerned about a run on masks,” Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the non-partisan Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said referring to the CDC not recommending masks in early stages of the pandemic.
After the CDC reversed itself and asked the public to wear masks to protect others, it wasn’t known if masks also protected the wearer. The CDC recently announced additional studies that prove a cloth mask or facial covering captures infectious particles, providing two-way protection for the wearer and others who come into contact with that person.
“This is yet one more reason we should all be wearing masks when around others,” Thompson said.
In Eureka Springs there have been confrontations when people who believe in the importance of masks – and are wearing one themselves – come into close contact with people who don’t wear masks.
“I went to the post office recently and the person in line ahead of me was not wearing a mask,” teacher and author Doug Stowe said. “I mentioned it and got an extremely angry response with the woman claiming that she had a health exclusion that exempted her from the statewide mandate, even inside our small post office where all are requested to wear masks.
“With the CDC now stating clearly that masks do offer some protection to the wearer as well as others, I’m curious what those conditions are that exempt a person from wearing a mask and whether or not those conditions would place them in a high risk-of-death category if they were to catch Covid-19.”
Stowe asked the Arkansas Department of Health for an explanation of what medical conditions or disabilities prevent wearing a face mask. Spokesperson Meg Miravel responded in an email that this is thought to be a relatively small number of people. She gave Stowe a link to CDC guidance on who should not wear a mask: “Children younger than two. Anyone who has trouble breathing. Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. Wearing masks may be difficult for some people with sensory, cognitive, or behavioral issues. If they are unable to wear a mask properly or cannot tolerate a mask, they should not wear one, and adaptations and alternatives should be considered.”
Recently Hutchinson announced the establishment of a Winter Covid-19 Task Force to come up with recommendations including how to get better adherence to the mask mandate and social distancing. The task force will also be considering how to best use the state’s healthcare resources to address the surge of Covid-19 cases.
In mid-November, the state had seen new cases of Covid-19 double to more than 2,000 per day from the rates averaging below 1,000 a month earlier. Thompson suspects new cases could reach 3,000 per day soon. Rates of hospitalizations also continue to break records regularly and the state recorded its highest death rate on Nov. 16 when 42 people died from Covid-19.