Photo: Rep. Michelle Gray
LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Three Arkansas lawmakers, including Rep. Michelle Gray of Melbourne, have tested positive for the coronavirus, legislative leaders said Tuesday, and the state’s governor said he’s scaling back his public events and meetings after being exposed to someone with the virus.
Senate President Jim Hendren said the Legislature was postponing its budget hearings after two House members and one senator tested positive. Hendren said legislative leaders will work with the Health Department to determine who must be quarantined and tested because of potential exposure.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters he was limiting his events after learning someone at a meeting he held Friday tested positive for the virus. Hutchinson said he’s tested negative twice since learning of his exposure.
Hutchinson went forward with a tour of the state Monday to campaign for a highway tax measure, even after learning of his exposure. He defended the move, saying he received the negative results before the campaign events, and he followed masking and social distancing guidelines.
“As I came back after that, the Department of Health had a further discussion with the individual who tested positive and they said out of an abundance of caution let’s go ahead and not quarantine but let’s limit the engagements to really essential activities,” Hutchinson said at his weekly coronavirus briefing, which was held virtually.
Hutchinson said he will be tested regularly over the next week.
Arkansas has seen a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks, and the number of people in the hospital increased by 24 to a new high of 637 on Tuesday. A White House task force report said the state ranked 12th in the country for new cases per capita. Nearly three-fourths of the counties in Arkansas have moderate or high community spread of the virus, the task force said.
The state’s probable and confirmed virus cases rose by 844, bringing the state’s total since the pandemic began to 100,441. The state’s COVID-19 fatalities increased by 14 to 1,728.
Sen. Terry Rice, Rep. Michelle Gray and Rep. Stu Smith all tested positive, Hendren and a House spokeswoman said.
The Joint Budget Committee approved a rule change that will allow lawmakers to meet and vote remotely if they are quarantined or in isolation because of the virus, or if they or a household member is at high risk for severe illness due to COVID-19.
“I am confident, even with this short break, that we can still accomplish the work required in advance of the 2021 Regular Session,” House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said in a statement.
Dr. Jose Romero, the state’s health secretary, said the number of cases in Arkansas indicates that not enough people are following the state’s requirement to wear a mask in public and other safety measures.
“We need to have at least 50% of the population use the mask and use these guidelines consistently in order to see a decrease in the number of cases that we report each day,” Romero said.