LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas legislative leaders on Monday said they'll resume budget hearings but with new social distancing procedures in place after a seventh lawmaker in a week tested positive for COVID-19.
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe tested positive Sunday, Senate President Jim Hendren said, making her the latest to do so amid an outbreak that halted budget hearings last week. Bledsoe, 76, co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee and Legislative Council. She also is the mother of state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe.
Hendren said he thinks the plexiglass partitions that were installed between desks may have given lawmakers a “false sense of security."
“We had several members sitting next to each other, so we're going to try to go back to more socially distanced seating," he said. The committee also approved a rule last week allowing members to participate remotely, and an adjacent hearing room can be used to ensure members aren't sitting too closely, he said.
Hendren said he also expected an effort to ensure more compliance with a rule that lawmakers wear masks at the hearings. A rule approved before the hearings requires masks unless lawmakers are speaking into microphones, are at least six feet away from others or are drinking.
Legislative meetings have been closed to the public since early on in the pandemic. All of the lawmakers who tested positive recently attended budget hearings or other legislative meetings. Previously, only four lawmakers had tested positive for the virus in the spring.
Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe tweeted Monday that four other members of his family — his father, his wife and two of his children — also tested positive. Bledsoe said he has tested negative so far.
Arkansas has had the 17th highest positivity rate of any state over the past 14 days, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week limited his public appearances and meetings after being exposed to someone with the virus. Since the exposure, he has tested negative several times and his office said he tested negative again on Monday. Hutchinson initially planned a news conference in Two Rivers Park on Wednesday about Pinnacle Mountain, but that event was no longer on his schedule late Monday afternoon. Instead, all of his public events planned for this week were online.
The Department of Health on Monday reported the state's probable and confirmed virus cases rose by 612, to 106,727 since the pandemic started. The actual number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested and people can carry the virus but not feel sick.
The state's COVID-19 hospitalizations rose Monday by 16, to a new high of 649. And Arkansas recorded 21 more deaths from the disease, raising its total to 1,833.
“The increased hospitalizations and deaths are somber reminders of the current threat," Hutchinson said in a statement. “United, we will have success but it takes everyone to fight hard in the coming weeks."
Arkansas' previous high for hospitalizations was 637 on Oct. 20. Twenty-seven percent of the state's 9,120 hospital beds and nearly 12% of its 1,054 intensive care unit beds are available, according to the Department of Health. There are 268 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.
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