Poor marks for Asa
Asa Hutchinson’s almost-daily updates on COVID-19, aired live via YouTube, have become required viewing since the pandemic began in March.
I’ve been generally pleased, for what it’s worth, with Hutchinson’s performance as governor. As a conservative Republican, he has managed to find enough common ground with Democratic legislators to function fairly successfully as the state’s chief executive. That’s a credit to his pragmatism and his willingness to compromise in the best interest of the people of Arkansas.
So, too, I believed Hutchinson did mostly the right things in the early days of the pandemic. He closed Arkansas schools quickly and had the good sense to keep them closed. And while he was one of the nation’s only governors who didn’t impose a mandatory shelter-in-place order, he did order the closing of businesses where the virus might have been easily and broadly transmitted.
Hutchinson earned some credit in my estimation by taking those steps. Since then, however, his performance and leadership have been anything but credible.
Federal “gating criteria” outline clear guidelines for the phased reopening of a particular state. Among those are a “downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period” or a “downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests.)”
At Hutchinson’s direction, Arkansas entered Phase 1 of reopening on May 18. On that date, the state had 4,813 confirmed cases of the virus and 100 deaths — an increase of 1,344 cases (38.7 percent) and 20 deaths (25 percent) over a two-week period since May 4.
Four weeks later, on June 15, Arkansas moved to Phase 2. By then, the state had 12,917 cases and 182 deaths. Over a four-week period, the state’s number of confirmed cases increased by 8,104 (168.4 percent) and the number of deaths increased by 82 percent.
I’m not a mathematician, but I know enough to understand that the numbers in Arkansas do not align with the federal gating criteria — although I’m sure Hutchinson has a chart somewhere that justifies his decisions, at least in his mind.
My issues with Hutchinson’s leadership don’t stop at just the reopening. There’s also the way he has responded — or not responded — to outbreaks in correctional facilities such as the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County. The governor went out of his way to distinguish the numbers from Cummins and other correctional facilities, as if for some reason the inmates infected with COVID-19 didn’t count as real people or weren’t capable of spreading the virus to prison staff who were then at risk of spreading it among the outside community.
It’s likely Hutchinson was simply trying to minimize the numbers, but it created a bad impression that only got worse when an inmate released from Cummins without being tested for the virus wound up in Carroll County, where he tested positive and allegedly failed to adhere to a quarantine. Hutchinson said without qualification that all inmates were being tested before being released. That was absolutely not true at the time. As more than one person has said to me, perhaps the governor was given bad information and repeated it unknowingly. That’s not impossible, but I believe it is incumbent on the governor to provide accurate information. If he later discovers that the information he has shared isn’t true, he has a responsibility to acknowledge that and correct it.
New Yorker magazine had a lot more to say about the COVID-19 outbreak at Cummins, publishing a horrific account of the way inmates were treated during the crisis. Hutchinson’s response to questions about the magazine report was simply to say that he and his office weren’t contacted and that the report wasn’t factual, although to my knowledge he has yet to cite a specific factual error. Cummins officials, however, submitted written answers to 60 questions posed by the New Yorker, and the magazine’s report did not lack balance. What should happen, but likely won’t, is an independent investigation of what actually happened at Cummins, where at least 11 inmates have died.
If all that wasn’t enough to raise legitimate questions about Hutchinson’s response to COVID-19, there is his absolutely confounding attempt to walk a political tightrope on the issue of masks. At every appearance, the governor stresses the importance of wearing a mask. But he refuses to mandate it, even though he clearly recognizes and articulates the fact that masks can help reduce the spread of the virus. Beyond that, he’s gone out of his way to say that local measures calling for everyone to wear masks in public are superseded by the state’s policy. That’s all the fuel the deniers need to ignore an outcry for masks by both the public and the city government in a place like Eureka Springs.
Hutchinson has been a successful governor because he has been proficient at threading a political needle, practicing a brand of conservatism that usually doesn’t seem especially harsh or threatening to the state’s non-conservative minority. That’s allowed the governor to get a few things done.
In terms of his response to COVID-19, however, Hutchinson’s constant attempts to minimize the numbers, his handling of the Cummins fiasco and his double-speak on the importance of masks have combined for an abject failure.