JONESBORO — Northeast Arkansans saw footage Tuesday of Jonesboro police officers and city residents crammed into a community room at the E. Boone Watson Community Center for a promotion ceremony.
Around 100 people sat shoulder to shoulder, most not wearing face coverings or social distancing, to attend a Jonesboro Police Department event.
In spite of the video evidence, JPD and city officials say the police department is taking proactive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin has encouraged residents, especially city employees, to wear masks since the beginning of the pandemic.
City council meetings were held virtually and the Municipal Center was locked down, with the public not allowed into the meetings when the pandemic began.
However, Jonesboro Police Department personnel only use personal protective equipment on an as-needed basis, said Sally Smith, public information specialist.
“There is no policy for face masks at this time, only the governor’s directives,” she said, even though one of the governor’s main directives has been to wear masks, especially at crowded public events, and maintain social distancing.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has consistently stressed during his press conferences that people wear masks, although he has stopped short of mandating mask wearing. As recently as Wednesday the governor said that masks could determine whether or not high school and college sports return in September.
“If we want football, high school football, high school sports this year and, beyond that, in college,” he said, “we need to concentrate on this mask now. There’s a connection between the two. We wear our masks, we reduce the cases, we reduce the growth, we stop the spread of the virus. And that puts us in a better position to have some type of team sports this fall,” Hutchinson said during his press conference.
Unlike Fayetteville and Little Rock, city officials have not implemented an ordinance to mandate wearing face coverings in public, saying such laws are “unenforceable.”
Perrin was unavailable Thursday to comment on JPD’s apparent disregard of the governor’s recommendation and state health directives.
Phase 2 directives from the Arkansas Department of Health include capping social gatherings to 100 people or less in a large indoor venue, with parties seated six feet apart.
It was “unfortunate” to see footage of officers not wearing face coverings or social distancing in the E. Boone Watson Community Center, said Bill Campbell, city communications director.
“(Officers) think of themselves as family and they’re together all the time, but it’s not what we’re wanting to get across to the people. We hope nobody in that room is contagious,” Campbell said.
Chief Rick Elliott previously told The Sun that the department is “ready to deal” with the coronavirus as it’s now equipped with adequate PPE.
“It depends on the situation that they get into (determines) what they feel to wear at that time,” he said. “Just riding around on patrols, no, they’re not wearing a mask in the car. … If they’re having contact with somebody out in public, they may or may not. We encourage them to wear them as much as possible.”
The footage wasn’t a “gotcha moment,” Campbell said, but it’s a reflection of the times.
“Putting on a mask is like wearing a seatbelt. It’s like putting on a coat in the winter time. It’s a learned behavior,” he said. “I think some people today still consider it an inconvenience but it saves lives. A mask can save lives … and certainly slow the spread.”
Many officers have taken advantage of free testing services, Smith said. So far, none of JPD’s employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, she said.