Gov. Asa Hutchinson started his Wednesday press conference with a football in one hand and a mask in the other. His message was clear. You want the first? Wear the second.
I’ve attended many of his press conferences through the years. He respects journalists and the role they play, and he is willing to answer questions to a fault.
He does not share his innermost feelings, and he’s not an innermost feelings kind of guy anyway. But if he did share them, he’d probably say he’s as tired of answering why the state doesn’t have a mask mandate as he was when he was constantly asked why he hadn’t issued a stay-at-home order.
The reasons for both are similar. The governor has exercised extraordinary power over Arkansans’ lives these past three months. But governments always depend on the consent of the governed, and the governed eventually will revolt if pushed too far.
Here in Arkansas, Hutchinson will see increased defiance by the people that would be reflected in a more defiant Legislature. The latter already is happening as he nears the second half of his last term. It would have happened anyway, but the pandemic likely accelerated it.
The governor has said a mask mandate could backfire and result in fewer masks being worn by assertively independent Arkansans. Moreover, it would be unenforceable. Are police supposed to cite or arrest people for not wearing a mask?
Instead, he has opted for actions he can enforce, like shutting down schools for almost half a million students and requiring state-licensed restaurants to require masks.
Now he’s added a carrot-and-stick approach – the carrot being football, the stick being no football. We still don’t know when the next kickoff will be. Across Arkansas, high school players are practicing, but it’s supposed to be non-contact and they’re supposed to be wearing masks where appropriate, which I have a hard time believing is happening everywhere.
Meanwhile, we’re all waiting to see if college football actually happens this fall as programs like LSU and Clemson report large numbers of infected athletes.
Meanwhile, the governor is setting an example by wearing a mask in public alongside his Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith. He injected a little humor into his efforts June 30 by displaying an internet meme featuring the presidents on Mount Rushmore wearing digitally imposed masks.
It’s good that he’s setting an example, but I don’t know how many Arkansans will wear a mask because they saw a current politician or a dead president wearing one.
Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, suggested on his Twitter feed producing a public service announcement featuring nurses describing their hospital experiences and asking Arkansans to wear masks. That would be a better way for the governor to spread his message, and with state revenues coming in higher than expected, he has the money to do it.
The governor says wearing a mask is a key part of social distancing that will reduce the virus’s spread and allow the state to fully reopen its economy. The evidence has demonstrated that wearing a mask helps contain the respiratory droplets that can carry the disease.
Mask-wearing is widespread in South Korea. That country has seen only 282 deaths from COVID-19, according to the online resource Worldometer, compared to the 127,000 people in the United States who have died of or with the disease. Granted, South Korea is doing a lot of things the United States wouldn’t do, but it also didn’t shut down its economy to the extent we did.
The number of deaths nationally here has fallen significantly off its April peak, even as the caseload has been rising in some states including Arkansas. Maybe as a country we’re through the worst of this thing, or maybe we’re just in a lull. We still have much to learn as we combat a new virus that can change.
Here’s what’s clear: The governor has been willing to exercise his available powers while being mindful not to overreach, and he’s warning that if things don’t change, we might not have football this year.
In other words, this time the state’s referee-in-chief is saying that not grabbing the face mask results in a penalty.