LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday granted businesses protections from coronavirus lawsuits, while the state’s epidemiologist said she’s concerned loosened restrictions may have caused some to lower their guard against the virus.

Hutchinson signed executive orders that grants similar immunity to health care workers and providers, and another that extends workers compensation to employees who contract the virus because of their job. All three are in effect during the pandemic.

The Republican governor issued the orders, which will remain in effect during the pandemic, following requests by GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate for a special legislative session to take up the liability protections. He said the Legislature can revisit the issue next year.

“Whenever there's a fear of reopening, whenever there's a worry about the lawsuits and bringing customers back or bringing the patrons back because of the potential for lawsuits as we've seen in so many other states, this is a chilling effect and it can become a reality," Hutchinson said.

The orders granting immunity are similar to measures enacted in other states reopening after the pandemic. The business immunity doesn't apply to “willful, reckless or intentional misconduct" and would cover businesses and employees substantially complying with the state's virus safety rules.

Hutchinson said he wasn't ware of a lawsuit that's been filed Arkansas over workers or customers being exposed to the virus. The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, noting that, said “there simply is no crisis."

Opponents called the move unnecessary, given the lack of lawsuits so far and that businesses can already use their compliance with virus safety rules as a defense.

“I think that taking away someone’s right to be compensated when they’re hurt by a negligent business deprives them of access to justice and it removes an incentive for businesses to act in the public interest," Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins said.

Hutchinson issued the orders while Arkansas is in the middle of a dramatic resurgence of virus activity. The state’s active cases, meaning those excluding people who have died or recovered, have increased more than 163% since Memorial Day. Hospitalizations have more than doubled that same period.

The spike has followed the state's decision last month to allow businesses that had closed to reopen. Those restrictions were eased further Monday, with restaurants, bars and other businesses allowed to serve more customers.

State Epidemiologist Jennfier Dillaha said there’s no link between the eased restrictions and the spike, noting the state hasn’t seen an outbreak from businesses that have reopened. But Dillaha said she is concerned about “pandemic fatigue” setting in and causing people to revert to their practices before the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s possible that people have used the loosening of restrictions to lower their guard and not continue the (social distancing) practices,” Dillaha said. “That’s very concerning.”

Dillaha, however, said she's not arguing against the loosened restrictions.

Hutchinson said while part of his message is that the state's economy must get moving again, he's also advising residents that they must maintain social distancing and other practices to prevent the virus's spread.

“We can only do those things when you protect yourselves, you protect others and you follow the public health guidelines," Hutchinson said.

The Health Department said at least 12,917 people have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 416 cases from Sunday. The department 4,383 of those cases are active.

The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The state's recorded deaths from the illness caused by the virus rose to 182, while hospitalizations rose to 206.


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