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Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced steps to help small business and child care centers in Arkansas remain open during the COVID-19 outbreak, as health officials announced the number of coronavirus cases in Arkansas had risen to 33.
The number of new cases includes the first one in northwest Arkansas, in Fayetteville in Washington County. Other cases were discovered in Bradley and Faulkner counties.
Officials said three of the state’s cases are related to travel outside the U.S. — one trip to France and two to India. Six more were related to domestic travel. The governor said Arkansans should reconsider travel plans, citing the threat of bringing more cases to the state.
The governor also outlined steps to help small businesses affected by the virus. First, the state will allocate $12 million in Community Development Block Grant money to help relief and recovery efforts for companies and nonprofits.
Second, the governor will also use $4 million from his quick-action fund to provide bridge loans of up to $250,000 for mid-sized firms to make payroll and remain in operation. The quick-action fund is typically used as an economic development tool, providing lump-payments to businesses the state is recruiting to Arkansas or helping expand.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the state will give loan priority to businesses critical to the state’s economy.
“What we’re looking for is priority in companies that are in the supply chain of essential goods and services including health care, food manufacturing, logistics — those companies that are so important to our economy, getting the supplies out to those in need right now,” he said.
Businesses seeking to apply for a loan can get information at www.arkansasedc.com/covid19. They can also call the Commerce Department at (501) 682-1121. Preston said information about the loan program will be pushed to local chambers of commerce, so businesses could also work through those sources.
The governor is also requesting a federal disaster declaration to allow small business loans of up to $2 million. Information about that program is available at sba.gov/coronavirus and by calling Arkansas’ local SBA office at (501) 324-7279.
The state Department of Human Services is also providing incentives to keep child care centers open in Arkansas through next week, after which the state is planning to reopen its schools. The governor said 803 providers had closed as of Wednesday, and about 1,200 remain open.
DHS said it will raise the amount of money it pays to child care centers under the Child Care Development Block Grant program, as well as easing restrictions on the number of children a center can care for — its occupational capacity — and waiving certain requirements around education. It will also allow child care centers to mix children in classes between ages 5 to 12.
DHS Executive Director Cindy Gillespie said those measures will allow child care centers to take on more children as other centers close. She said the agency would also expedite background checks for centers that might hire additional workers.
Those programs and allowances will continue through March 27 while Arkansas schools are closed. DHS could extend those programs should the date change for when schools reopen, Gillespie said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus, which causes the disease called COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Arkansas’ public schools have been closed until March 30 because of the outbreak. Hutchinson on Tuesday announced he was also easing restrictions on seeking unemployment.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)