It’s been a year since the first case of the novel coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, was confirmed in Arkansas, likely brought to the state by a resident of Pine Bluff after visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
The toll from the disease worldwide has been catastrophic, and Arkansas has not been spared. Over the past year, roughly 5,500 deaths in Arkansas have been attributed to COVID, hundreds of thousands afflicted, jobs and businesses lost, and virtually everyone’s lives disrupted in some way if not upended entirely.
It has been a century since the world has seen a global pandemic of this magnitude, so nobody in a leadership position had any direct experience dealing with a calamity of this scale. So how is Arkansas faring, generally speaking, and what are our prospects for a return to some semblance of normalcy?
“It’s been a shock to the state, but we’ve responded well,” said Dr. Jose Romero, an infectious disease specialist at UAMS Health in Little Rock who also serves, since August 2020, as the state’s secretary of health.
Romero told Arkansas Money & Politics that at the beginning of the crisis, Arkansas had no diagnostic capability but was sending test specimens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Now the state is capable of processing more than 3,000 specimens a day.
“We’ve built a robust diagnostic capability within the public health system,” Romero said of testing efforts begun by Dr. Nate Smith, the previous health secretary who last year took a job with the CDC. “That’s been instrumental in us being able to really get a handle on where outbreaks are occurring and tracking them.”
Romero said he’s grateful the state hasn’t gone “over the cliff” and overwhelmed the health care system, which was his biggest concern at the end of 2020 and which it came perilously close to doing in January.
Arkansas being largely rural presents special problems, but Romero thinks the state is doing well with vaccines. He’s proud of the fact that as of late February, the state ranked 13th nationally in getting the state’s allotment out to the public. He is concerned, though, about the future availability of the vaccine, especially now that variants of the virus have emerged, and also with what he calls “vaccine hesitancy” or “vaccine reluctance” voiced by a segment of the population.
Though he believes the state has weathered the storm, Romero thinks masking and social distancing will continue for a while yet, at least until the end of the year. When those restrictions are no longer needed, he said, will depend on a number of factors such as variants and the public’s acceptance of the vaccine.
“Now that we know that the variants are in a growing number of states, we need to continue with our physical mitigation methods and not drop our guard,” he said. “These variants spread quickly and, at least for the [United Kingdom] variant, have been associated with a greater risk of severe disease and death. I think the future is positive if we take hold of it the right way, and we can get through this. I’m very pleased that we are where we are today with regard to not overwhelming the health care system and that we have some vaccines that are coming out with more on the way.”
Bo Ryall, president and CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, thinks hospitals in the state adapted well to early challenges of the pandemic, including lack of Personal Protective Equipment and limited testing capacity. He said hospitals did well in looking ahead and buying equipment, especially ventilators, early on, and have also done a good job of communicating with each other to coordinate distribution of patients and the availability of resources like ICU beds.
That has been instrumental in allowing small, rural hospitals to cope with spikes in hospitalizations, which sometimes pushed them to near-capacity levels.
“This cooperating and coordinating has been something great that’s come out of the pandemic,” he said. Noting that the biggest challenge has been acquiring and retaining staff since the summer as Arkansas hospitals competed for ICU nurses, respiratory therapists and other medical staff with travel nurse agencies and from hospitals in states like Florida, California and Texas that experienced big surges in infections.
Ryall’s priority now is working with the Arkansas Department of Health, pharmacists and hospitals to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as quickly as possible.
“We’re in a race to get as many people vaccinated as possible before the variant reaches us,” he said.
Schools facing COVID have been presented with a unique set of problems. For starters, juggling the options of remote or in-person learning — or a mix of both — for children ranging in age from five to 18, making classrooms safe for students and staff, providing meals for students and families who depend on them, dealing with often conflicting pressure from parents and having to constantly recalibrate as the pandemic raged on.
Teresa Knapp-Gordon, a library media specialist in the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and president of the Little Rock Education Association, thinks the emphasis to reopen businesses as quickly as possible reduced teachers to babysitters, leading to a possible lost year of learning. But she praised LRSD and state leaders for being proactive in efforts to contain the virus.
“At least we’re getting the vaccine and the opportunity to develop some immunity to the virus,” she said.
While some industries have been able to navigate COVID reasonably well and others have even prospered because of it, the hospitality industry has been hammered. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that 4.5 million American travel and tourism jobs were lost in 2020, and the World Travel and Tourism Council fears the global toll could reach as high as 174 million by the time normal travel resumes.
According to Montine McNulty, CEO of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, the hospitality industry in Arkansas was on track for a banner year in early 2020, posting record numbers in both visitations to the state and sales tax receipts. When COVID hit in March and many businesses shut down, the impact was probably felt the most by hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and similar businesses.
“We went from near the very top to the bottom,” McNulty said. “It was a huge hit for a major industry in Arkansas.”
While leisure travel has picked up lately and smaller venues are offering events on a limited scale, large venues and convention hotels are all but completely dark. McNulty cites a report that says the pandemic has wiped out 10 years of hotel job growth and employment. McNulty does not expect conventions or business travel to return to pre-pandemic levels until late 2022 or early 2023.
“Our hotels are in dire straits,” she said.
McNulty praised Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas legislature, who she believes were very supportive of the hospitality industry and of business in general. With a balanced state budget and finances in reasonably good shape, the state has been able to do a lot to help businesses stay afloat during this time of crisis, she said.
“I think Arkansas is really going to come out of this well, comparatively speaking. It is a disaster, but compared with other states, we should be OK.”
Elliot Hunt, owner and executive chef at Atlas, a new fine dining restaurant in Fayetteville, expects to be OK, too, but not without a lot of hard work and plenty of anxiety. Opening his own restaurant had been a lifelong dream, nurtured during years of honing his culinary skills working at restaurants in France, Australia, India, Vail and Chicago, before returning to his hometown.
After three years of planning, Hunt and his business partner, Brandon Rostek, opened Atlas. The timing of the opening last year, Feb. 1, could hardly have been worse. Six weeks after Hunt plated his first entree, the governor ordered restaurants closed for everything but carryout service.This left Hunt with no choice but to furlough 27 of his staff off 33 (“That was probably one of the hardest days I’ve ever had,” he said) and place his expertly crafted cuisine into compostable cardboard boxes for customers to reheat in their microwave ovens at home. “We joked in the kitchen that every to-go box felt like a coffin for food,” he said.
Though he had no intention of offering carryout service, Hunt’s willingness to be flexible and roll with the COVID-related punches allowed Atlas to survive the summer, more or less breaking even.
“The local community pulled us through,” he said, noting that customers ordered carryout meals and purchased gift cards. “It was a very humbling experience. They really came out and supported us in our time of need.”
Hunt also received grants and other financial help from the government, including a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which he said were lifelines that kept the business afloat. Support from the tightly knit culinary community in Fayetteville was also instrumental in maintaining everyone’s mental and emotional well-being, he added.
In early May, when the state went into its first phase of reopening and restaurants were permitted to open their dining rooms to one-third capacity, he and Rostek opted not to reopen, believing it was not financially feasible. Instead, they continued with carryout only until June, when they reopened partially by offering six-course dinners on weekends.
In August, the dining room of Atlas has reopened to about 50 percent capacity, and the menu has returned to its original model of fine dining. Even using only half of the dining room’s seating capacity, Hunt says Atlas is doing well.
Vaccinations have started, but variants of the virus are gaining traction in the United States. When the pandemic will be over and life returns to normal is still an open question about which even health experts are loath to make predictions. On top of that, restaurants are among the most risky businesses going. Does Hunt think he’ll make it?
“It’s my lifelong dream to have this restaurant,” he said. “We pivoted so much, I felt like we were doing pirouettes. I will dance until I die to keep this place open. We definitely are going to make it.”