LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an order Thursday requiring people to wear face masks in public throughout the state, which has had a surge in coronavirus cases over the past several weeks.
The Republican governor had resisted a statewide mask mandate and opposed issuing a stay-at-home order earlier in the pandemic, but he signed the order requiring masks when social distancing isn’t possible in the hopes of slowing the disease’s rapid spread in the state. The order takes effect Monday.
Hutchinson’s decision comes amid growing support for mask requirements from business and health leaders and a day after Bentonville-based Walmart said it would require customers to wear masks in all of its U.S. stores. The state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, also called for a statewide requirement on Thursday.
Hutchinson previously encouraged people to wear masks and allowed cities to pass ordinances requiring their use, but he stopped short of requiring them statewide. He’s the latest Republican governor to relent on the mask issue in the face of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Alabama’s governor issued a similar mask mandate on Wednesday.
Arkansas’ coronavirus cases have dramatically risen since May, when the state began allowing businesses that had closed because of the pandemic to reopen despite warnings from national health officials about the risks of doing so too soon. Arkansas was one of a handful of states that did not issue a broader stay-at-home order that kept most businesses closed.
Hutchinson previously questioned how a mask mandate could be enforced in a rural state such as Arkansas, but this week he left open the possibility of such a requirement. The chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences called for a statewide requirement last weekend.
Hutchinson’s order was expected to face criticism from some conservatives in the state. Hours before he issued the order, a Republican legislator urged people to call Hutchinson to oppose any mask directive.