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Governor closes alcohol establishments earlier

JONESBORO — A day after 270 doctors from around Arkansas urged Gov Asa Hutchinson to impose new restrictions to curb a surge in coronavirus cases, the governor announced restaurants and bars serving alcohol must close by 11 p.m. daily.

The announcement came Thursday as Craighead County recorded 102 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is caused by the virus that has swept aggressively across the country, and Greene County had 58 more cases.

Poinsett and Cross counties had one confirmed new death each on Thursday. Jackson County also had a huge spike in confirmed infections, likely due to an outbreak at one of the state’s prisons in Newport.

Statewide, 1,684 confirmed cases were found among 11,560 PCR tests, and 2,034 antigen tests found another 554 probable infections. The percentage of positive PCR results in Craighead and all counties surrounding it was above 10 percent, including 12 percent in Craighead, 17 percent in Greene and 14.2 percent in Poinsett.

The total of confirmed cases since the pandemic reached Arkansas rose to 124,165, and the death toll rose by 20 to 2,105, with an additional 192 deaths listed as probable COVID cases.

Hutchinson said he would hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. today to address the issue of hospital crowding. Statewide, 899 people were hospitalized with the disease, including 353 in intensive care and 143 on ventilators. In the Northeastern region 171 were hospitalized and 47 were in ICUs, including 17 on ventilators.

In Wednesday’s open letter, the doctors warned of the health care system being strained by the rise in cases. They urged the Republican governor to close bars and gyms, and limit restaurants to takeout service only. They also called on him to limit indoor gatherings to less than 10 people.

“Our hospitals are filling up to the brim, and the virus is continuing to spread unchecked in our communities, meaning that the worst is approaching,” the letter delivered to Hutchinson’s office said. “Soon we will shoot past our capacity to care for patients.”

Hutchinson responded with a letter to the physicians, in which he noted the current capacity limits for restaurants and bars and other social distancing requirements in place for gyms. He also cited the state’s mask mandate.

“Please be assured I share your commitment to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Arkansas, and I recognize the importance of maintaining our hospital capacity,” he wrote. “I will continue to be guided by the expertise and experience of public health officials and evaluate appropriate actions to mitigate the impact on our hospital capacity.”

As of Wednesday, about 27 percent percent of the state’s 9,144 hospital beds and 7 percent of the state’s 1,124 intensive care unit beds were available, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county through Thursday:

Craighead – 5,766 confirmed (up 102 from Wednesday), 553 probable (up 11), 757 active cases (down 3); 64 confirmed deaths, 6 probable.

Greene – 1,992 confirmed (up 58), 409 probable (up 13); 314 active (down 111); 24 confirmed deaths, 2 probable.

Lawrence – 921 confirmed (up 13), 133 probable (unchanged); 100 active (up 4); 27 confirmed deaths.

Poinsett – 1,403 confirmed (up 36), 149 probable (up 2); 205 active (up 27); 33 confirmed deaths, 5 probable.

Mississippi – 2,727 confirmed (up 38), 176 probable (down 27); 267 active cases (down 1); 65 confirmed deaths, 14 probable.

Jackson – 1,188 confirmed (up 101), 276 probable (up 3); 448 active cases (up 99); 5 confirmed deaths, 1 probable.

Randolph – 716 confirmed (up 16), 176 probable (up 2); 120 active cases (down 5); 22 confirmed deaths, 6 probable.

Cross – 630 confirmed (up 7), 94 probable (up 2); 77 active cases (up 2); 23 confirmed deaths, 2 probable.

Clay – 618 confirmed (up 10), 124 probable (up 4); 156 active cases (up 2); 15 confirmed deaths, 3 probable.

Nettleton High School juniors Jenna Hauge and Kennedy Baker perform a USO medley recently at the Virtual Veterans Day Program at Nettleton High School.

Salute to veterans

Jared Bassham and gunsmithing students at Black River Technical College recently hosted the Pocahontas Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW brought World War II-era M1 Garands that are used for ceremonial purposes. The students disassembled, inspected, cleaned, lubed and reassembled the rifles for the VFW to continue to use for veteran funerals.


Election officials prepare for run-off

JONESBORO — As Craighead County election officials are trying to wrap up one election, they are simultaneously preparing for another.

One political race, that of Jonesboro City Clerk yielded results that made a run-off election necessary.

Three candidates were initially in the running for city clerk – Linda Allison, April Leggett, and Stan Mitchell.

When the final results were tallied, Linda Allison received 48.31 percent of the votes, April Leggett received 37.01 percent of the votes, and Stan Mitchell received 14.68 percent of the votes.

Craighead County Election Commissioner Jennifer Clack said there are rules that call for the upcoming runoff election.

“If you don’t get over 50 percent of the vote, and then it has to go to 40/20,” she said.

Allison did receive more than 40 percent of the votes, but there was not a 20 percent gap between the votes she received and the votes Leggett received.

Clack said early voting for the runoff election will be held on Nov. 24, Nov. 25 and Nov. 30.

“That is also when absentee ballots can be dropped off between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” Clack said.

Voters will be able to cast ballots during early voting at either the Craighead County Election Annex at 315 W Jefferson or the Lake City Courthouse at 113 Cobean, in Lake City.

The same drive-through location at 209 W. Washington that was used for the general election will once again be open.

The actual Election Day will be Dec. 1, and Clack said there will be seven polling locations open. Those locations are: Earl Bell Community Center at 1212 S. Church Street; Allen Park Community Center at 3609 Race Street; First National Bank Arena at 217 Olympic Drive; Forest Home Church of the Nazarene at 2403 Ritter Drive; Parker Park Community Center at 1522 N. Church Street; Valley View Church of Christ at 4500 Southwest Drive; and Walnut Street Baptist Church at 1910 Scenic Road. Those locations will be open from 7:30 am to 7:30 p.m.

Craighead County Clerk Lesli Penny said they are also still finishing up the final details of the general election.

“We are going through making sure we had all the provisional ballots entered,” Penny said.

According to the final Craighead County election report on the county’s website, there were a total of 85 provisional ballots county officials had to reconcile.

“We are giving them credit and making sure to update our database and purge all old information,” Penny said.

Overall, both women think despite the pandemic and the long lines during early voting, the general election went well.

“Overall, we had no issues, and everything went smoothly,” Clack said.

Penny said she thinks the election went really well.

“We did have the lines,” she said. “We had lines wrapped all the way around the building from the start of early voting, but we had a great turn out. We were able to handle the crowd, and everything was very positive.”

Clack said despite the ever-present threat of COVID-19, most voters turned out to vote in person during early voting.

“We had 66 percent of people coming in for the early vote,” she said.

“We had 3,275 total absentee voters, which was 8.5 percent of the registered voters in Craighead County, Arkansas,” Clack said.

Of the 57,883 registered voters in the county, there were 38,676 voters who cast their vote.

Of the 114 volunteers who assisted with the election, Clack said they did a phenomenal job.

“They were brilliant,” Clack said.

Judge's error not enough to overturn murder conviction, justices rule

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday a judge in Poinsett County failed to follow proper procedure when the jury deliberating in a capital murder trial submitted a question. But that was not enough to overturn the life prison sentence of a Harrisburg man.

Billy Allen Combs, now 60, was convicted Sept. 18, 2019, in the shooting death of his roommate, Michael Smith, 22.

During the trial, Harrisburg police Lt. Justin Kimble testified Combs shot Smith 10 times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.

Though Combs’ defense attorney cross-examined Kimble over statements he made in his official report from the incident, which occurred a year earlier, the report itself was never entered into the court record.

The jury sent a note to Judge Pamela Honeycutt asking, “Can we see Officer Kimble’s statement?”

After discussing the question with prosecutors and defense attorneys, Honeycutt said, “I’m going to say on here, ‘what do you mean by his statement’ and see what they say. Is that alright with everybody?”

The prosecutor agreed and the defense attorney didn’t object.

The jury didn’t respond to the judge’s note and returned a guilty verdict.

On appeal, Combs’ new attorneys argued state law requires judges to respond to jury inquiries in open court.

But Associate Justice Robin F. Wynne, writing for the Supreme Court majority, said Honeycutt’s violation didn’t prejudice the jury.

“Reversing on the facts presented here would put form over substance, which is not the rule,” Wynne wrote.

Justice Josephine Linker Hart disagreed.

“The purpose of the jury-trial mechanism is to seek the truth, so when proceedings against a defendant deviate from that mechanism’s intended structure, the result of those proceedings is undermined,” Hart argued. “Combs did not agree to the circuit court’s sending a written message to the jury, and he was deprived of the opportunity to address the jury’s concerns in open court.”

Combs reportedly told police he killed Smith as they argued over rent money.

When asked why he shot the victim so many times, Kimble said Combs responded, “It was all the bullets I had.”

Educator talks about conquering COVID-19

PARAGOULD — The worst part of having COVID-19 was her burning nose and a pins-and-needles sensation in her sinuses.

Lori Dial, theater director for Greene County Tech High School, said she began feeling a little off on the evening of Oct. 15.

“Both my husband and I started having a few symptoms on the 15th,” Dial said.

The following day, Dial said both her and her husband, Jamie Dial, who is principal at Oak Grove Middle School in the Paragould School District, were given rapid tests.

“We both tested positive,” she said.

Dial said her husband’s case of the virus was bit more severe than hers, noting he ran a fever and had a cough, but both survived and were on the mend five days after contracting the virus.

“On day five, when I started feeling better, I lost my sense of taste and smell,” she said.

Dial said she is not certain where the couple caught the virus.

“We had both been so good with precautions,” she said.

Having to quarantine in her home while trying to keep her 11-year-old daughter from contracting the disease was a challenge.

“She never caught it,” Dial said.

It was a blessing to have had such a mild case, she said, noting, “I really don’t know how I escaped it.”

Dial said she has many pre-existing conditions, which placed her in the more vulnerable category. Dial said she has a heart condition and high blood pressure and takes medicine for both.

A major surgery in February had Dial making some lifestyle changes, which included a vitamin regimen of zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D3, and elderberry.

“I have also become more active doing cardio,” she said.

Dial said experience with the pandemic is scary, but she feels a bit relieved to have contracted it and gotten through it.

“The scary thing with all this is you just don’t know how it is going to affect you,” she said.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health website, both Greene County Tech School District and Paragould School District have had numerous COVID-19 cases. Monday’s report from Arkansas Department of Health reflects the Paragould School District currently standing at 35 active cases, while Greene County Tech School District stands at 33 active cases.

One school district, Riverside, in Lake City, does not have information available on the Arkansas Department of Health website, but the school district’s Point of Contact person, Brandy Wallace, said they are battling cases of COVID-19 within the school’s population.

“We have been lucky; we have not had five positive cases in the building except one time,” Wallace said. “I feel like we have put in a lot of preventative measures.”

Wallace said students in all grades have to wear masks, all students get daily temperature checks, and all students with fever or displaying any symptoms get sent home immediately.

“The teachers have been really diligent in making sure all students stay 6 feet away,” she said. “Wallace said there are even measures on the playground to help cut down on transmission of the virus.

“On the playgrounds, they play in pods so they are only around a certain group of people,” she said. “A lot of the things we have done have kept a lot of students out of quarantine.”

Bay school district has also had cases of the virus, but has one of the lowest cumulative staff cases in the state with just six staff members testing positive for the virus since mid-June.

Bay Superintendent Luke Lovins said the district is doing as well as anybody can be doing.

“That six number is a direct result of the diligence and hard work of the staff,” he said. “We are in the middle of a spike, and we continue to take the same precautions.”

Students from the ages of 10 and up are required to wear masks, and Lovins said teachers and other staff are doing all they can do to keep everything sanitized.

“We have been extremely lucky, with only 11 active cases and 31 total cases,” he said.