Gov asks for U.S. to close Buffalo National River after visitors raise outbreak fears
by Bill Bowden, Andy Davis
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he had asked the federal government to close the Buffalo National River out of a concern that visitors from outside the state are spreading the coronavirus.
He also announced the virus had claimed the lives of two more Arkansans, raising the death toll in the state from the pandemic to 10. By Wednesday evening, the number of cases in the state had risen by 60 from a day earlier to 624.
Fifty-five of the state's 75 counties had cases, including the first ones reported in Carroll and Lee counties.
Hutchinson's announcement about the northern Arkansas river, designated as a national park, came a day after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the river's largest resort had closed for a month out of concerns about crowds.
At least four Arkansas lawmakers and the mayor of Jasper sent letters to Interior Secretary David Bernhard asking for the park's closure.
"The trail heads are overrun with vehicles from every state in the country, including states with hot spots of covid-19," Republican Sens. Missy Irvin of Mountain View, Scott Flippo of Mountain Home, and Breanne Davis of Russellville said in their letter, dated Tuesday.
[Read two of the letters here]
"This has caused a tremendous strain on our local citizens, law enforcement, grocery stores and restaurants who are trying to follow the president's directives and prevent the virus from spreading in their communities," the senators said in the letter.
Hutchinson also expressed concern Tuesday about visitors to the park from states with larger coronavirus outbreaks than Arkansas' and said he would consult with the National Park Service on the issue.
On Wednesday, he said 60% of the park's visitors the previous day were from outside the state.
"You think about that in terms of hot spots across the country, the fact that other parks have closed, it certainly points to the need that if we're going to try to limit out-of-state visitors and the spread of covid-19 that we need to take this step, and I made that recommendation," Hutchinson said.
The Department of the Interior and the Park Service didn't return a message seeking comment on Hutchinson's request Wednesday.
The National Park Service has closed some parks because of crowds including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Canyonlands, Arches and Joshua Tree.
n Arkansas, all campgrounds in the Buffalo National River have already been closed to overnight camping as well as the Gulpha Gorge campground in Hot Springs National Park.
Pavilions and visitor centers at the Buffalo National River have been closed.
In his letter to the Interior secretary, state Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, said closing the river "will deliver a powerful message to all Americans of the severity of the situation and the importance of the simple yet effective tactic of just staying home."
"I don't think we were overrun in Jasper, but the people out in the county were very upset," Mayor Jan Larson said said.
"We're in the middle of a pandemic and there was a total disregard for any rules and regulations. We depend on tourism, but it's got to be managed."
Newton County Sheriff Glenn Wheeler said he's been in close contact with park Superintendent Mark Foust and County Judge Warren Campbell about the issue.
"I also spoke with Rep. Slape about it and reached out to Arkansas Tourism asking them to stop the campaign encouraging folks to get outdoors in the remote parts of the state," Wheeler said in a text message. "It overwhelmed our resources this past weekend, not to mention the influx of people from coronavirus hot spots and their interaction with our local folks, straining our grocery supplies, etc."
But Health Department Secretary Nate Smith reiterated Wednesday that ultraviolet rays from the sun tend to "degrade most viruses," decreasing the risk of transmission.
"That's why I've encouraged being outside," while keeping a safe distance from other people, he said.
In another moved aimed at discouraging visitors from other states, Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said the state's parks will be closed to overnight visitors starting Friday, a move that she said is "consistent with 28 other states."
She said the state also will close certain "trails that are problematic," including Cedar Falls Trail and Cedar Falls overlook at Petit Jean State Park near Morrilton and the East and West Summit trails at Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock.
Hurst said where possible, state parks will close their gates to visitors when their parking lots are full and ticket cars parked in unauthorized areas.
Park rangers also will disperse gatherings, and rangers at less popular parks will be reassigned to busier ones to help manage crowds. Other park workers will educate visitors on keeping a safe distance from each other, she said.
"If these measures aren't enough to address issues of overcrowding and inadequate social distancing, we'll pivot and make new recommendations to the governor," Hurst said.
In a news release later Wednesday, Hurst's department said other areas that will be closed include the day-use area on Arkansas 300 at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and the Fossil Flats Mountain Bike and Woody Plants trails at Devil's Den State Park near Winslow.
The state had already closed park lodges, museums and exhibits and limited camping to self-contained recreational vehicles.
To limit the spread of the virus, Arkansas has closed public schools through at least April 17, limited restaurants to takeout, drive-thru and delivery, indefinitely closed fitness clubs, hair salons and other businesses, and limited indoor social gatherings to 10 or fewer people.
Hutchinson said that, during a phone call Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, didn't bring up the need for a broader order telling residents to stay at home.
According to a count by The New York Times, statewide orders have been issued in 37 states, with Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Nevada joining the list Wednesday. Orders are in place in parts of seven other states.
Birx "was delighted with what we we've done with our social distancing, with our restrictions that we have in place, and also with the success that we're having in terms of reducing the arc and flattening that curve," Hutchinson said.
He added that such orders seem to be mostly symbolic.
"Most governors simply broaden the definition of essential services so everything's an essential service," Hutchinson said.
"We can do that, and we might have to do that because there is some public messaging that if you're not doing something important, you need to to stay home.
"I think we've conveyed that. I think we've conveyed that from everything we're doing."
Hutchinson said the state has asked Birx's help in forecasting the spread of the virus in the state and will be sharing data with the White House.
Although members of the White House coronavirus task force unveiled projections showing that, even with restrictions on movement in place, the virus is expected to kill 100,000 to 200,000 Americans, Smith said the Trump administration hasn't provided projections on Arkansas deaths.
"For Arkansas, we really don't know," Smith said. "It really depends a lot on what we do today.
"So far our epidemic curve has been flatter than most places, and a lot of this has to do with not just the number of cases that you have but who's getting sick."
For instance, he said, protecting nursing-home residents has been a top priority.
Although one of the state's deaths was of a nursing home resident, Smith said covid-19 is known to spread quickly in nursing homes, and "we're very happy that we've not seen that kind of explosive spread in nursing homes where we've had positive cases."
He said the state is also trying to slow the rate of infections to avoid a surge in hospitalizations "that overwhelms our system."
"If we can have our peak later than other states, then there'll be more resources, particularly ventilators, available and less need to make difficult decisions," he said.
Arkansas officials said they had placed an order for 500 ventilators from an overseas manufacturer but ended up losing it after New York put in a much larger order at a higher price.
Hutchinson said Pence on Wednesday "gave us the confidence that, when we need ventilators we're going to have ventilators."
"That doesn't stop us from planning and working and trying to acquire what we're trying to acquire, but certainly the vice president and the president understand the future needs that a state like Arkansas has, and they're committed to work with us in meeting those needs," Hutchinson said.
President Donald Trump said at a briefing Tuesday that the federal government has 10,000 ventilators that it has been "holding back" so it can move them to places they're needed the most.
Smith said one of the people who died most recently was a central Arkansas resident, and that he did not have "complete information" on where the other one lived. At least one of the two people had underlying health conditions, he said.
According to the Pulaski County coroner, Virgil Finkey, 63, of North Little Rock, died from covid-19 at 5:37 p.m. Tuesday at Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock.
The identity of the other person who died wasn't known Wednesday.
The state's eighth death, announced Tuesday, was of a 73 -year-old woman from Cleburne County, according to the Independence County coroner.
She died Monday at White River Medical Center in Batesville. The hospital did not provide the woman's name to the coroner.
All the state's other deaths have been of people age 65 or older except for Tanisha Cotton, 42, of Little Rock, who died Saturday morning at Saline Memorial Hospital in Benton.
The virus emerged late last year in Wuhan, China, and spreads through respiratory droplets emitted when people sneeze or cough. Symptoms -- fever, cough and shortness of breath -- have been mild for many people. Studies have indicated that the virus can live for days on surfaces.
The elderly and people with chronic health conditions are considered most at risk of severe illness, including pneumonia.
Smith said 56 of the state's coronavirus patients were hospitalized Wednesday, down from 64 a day earlier, and 25 were on ventilators, up from 23 a day earlier.
The new cases included four nursing home residents: two at The Waters at White Hall nursing home and two at The Villages of General Baptist West in Pine Bluff.
That brought the total number of nursing home residents with infections who have tested positive to 51, including four at the Pine Bluff facility and eight at the White Hall home, where at least one worker also has tested positive.
Five of those who recently tested positive were health care workers, bringing the total number of such workers who have been diagnosed with covid-19 to 84.
The total number of cases increased by 10 in Pulaski County, to 113, and by nine in Jefferson County, to 49.
The number went up by two each in Cleburne, Benton and Garland counties, bringing the number to 63 in Cleburne County, 40 in Benton County and 33 in Garland County.
Faulkner County had 36, with no new cases reported.
Out of all those who had tested positive as of Wednesday afternoon, 18 were children or teenagers 18 or younger, 170 were 65 or older and 396 were 18-64, Smith said.
Within the past day, Hutchinson said, the Health Department's lab had tested 147 people, the most it has tested in a single day.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences had tested 65 people, and 691 results came in from commercial labs, Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson added that Walmart is working with New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics to start drive-thru testing for covid-19 next week in Bentonville.
Like Walmart's two pilot testing sites in Chicago, this one will serve only health care workers and first-responders showing symptoms of the virus, a Walmart spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
This third pilot site also will let the Bentonville-based retailer test a new site layout and operational needs, the spokeswoman said. She did not say why Bentonville was selected for the site or where in the city it will be located.
"In coming weeks, we anticipate supporting additional drive-thru testing sites in areas where state and local officials have identified a need and requested support," the spokeswoman said.
Quest Diagnostics has a network of labs around the world, including one in Bentonville.
Information for this article was contributed by Serenah McKay and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.