Amid a pandemic, Arkansans persist.
The last time the world stopped was on Sept. 11, 2001. A fateful day of terror that no American will ever forget. But it would be easy to argue that the past two months have been worse in a lot of ways, and we can only hope that the shimmer of light at the end of this dark tunnel is fast approaching.
Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic, might have said it best. “Geography has bestowed upon the United States the blessing of being surrounded, as a former NATO chief once put it to me, by friends and fish: Canada, Mexico and two oceans,” Friedman wrote in an article on March 25. “Even when the homeland has come under attack — at Pearl Harbor, on 9/11 — we responded by fighting the enemy over there so we would not have to fight it back here. When it comes to national-security threats, here has long been a refuge, a fortress.”
This pandemic broke through our armor, invisible to our eyes, shadowed and silent. When we felt our safety net slip through our fingers in the past — from hijacked planes and attacks on our Hawaiian outpost — there was still a calming sense that our enemy had a face, something we could tangibly fight against with vengeful force. We viewed it as good vs. evil and felt confident that good would eventually prevail.
But COVID-19 is not evil, nor is it good. It’s biological, a zoonotic disease. It’s foreign in origin, but we can’t send in the Air Force or Marines to snuff it out. We can’t even see it. And while Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 are days that will always live in infamy, the novel coronavirus does not own a day — it owns months, and that’s if we’re lucky.
The first case of COVID-19 in Arkansas was reported on March 11. To prove this point of comparison: You might have already forgotten that. Virtually every day since has been filled with anxieties for many Arkansans. Fear for the health and safety of family members at risk of contraction. World-stopping moments of layoffs and furloughs as businesses shut down, temporarily or otherwise. Childcare worries since the schools have been online/AMI only since mid-March, and are closed for the rest of the school year. Food insecurities for those who’ve lost their jobs or counted on those daily meals at school for their children. Small businesses at risk of losing everything.
When we look back at this period of time that will not soon be forgotten, we should also hold tightly on the good that has come from this, as bittersweet it may be. It is often said that in the worst of times, the best of us rise to the challenge. Those words are no truer than here in Arkansas. As one segment of our state found peril, those who were able sought to provide relief. Our humble state came together during a time of difficulty and uncertainty and will come out of the other side of this tunnel better for it. We did it together, because we always work better that way.
Here are (a few) of those stories.
Hundreds of restaurants across the state adjusted their operations to offer family meals, to-go orders, curbside and home delivery. Businesses were focused on transitioning operations to remain open and continue serving Arkansans.
Yellow Rocket Concepts, the parent company behind some of the state’s popular eateries, such as ZAZA, Big Orange, Local Lime, Lost Forty Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co., employs more than 500 people. The owners, like many others, remained committed to paying their employees despite the impact the pandemic had on the service industry.
Tacos 4 Life continued to serve customers through its drive-thru or curbside and delivery services. The company introduced family packs to bring fresh, made-from-scratch food into your home. Through its Meal 4 Meal program, one family pack purchased from Tacos 4 Life can feed four people while providing eight meals to a hungry child.
Pete Nguyen, founder of Healthy Chew, a local weekly meal preparation service based out of Little Rock, gave back to his community during this unprecedented time by donating hand sanitizer and thousands of meals to medical workers.
As the pandemic pushed thousands of Arkansans out of work, food insecurities across the state reached unprecedented levels. Among the organizations stepping up to provide during this time was the Arkansas Foodbank, whose network of donations and volunteers were able to serve thousands of curbside emergency food boxes to those in need. The food bank kept its mobile site on the move, capable of serving up to 250 people per hour.
The Northwest Arkansas software development company Movista launched supportlocalnwa.com to help keep local businesses afloat during the pandemic. Through the platform, businesses could register to be included on the site, which would offer online gift cards for patrons to purchase. Hundreds of the region’s businesses partnered with the campaign, each receiving 100 percent of the purchase price from the sales. By mid-April, the site generated more than $200,000 of revenue.
Arkansas Community Foundation
The Republican Party of Arkansas and the Democratic Party of Arkansas put politics aside and locked arms for the greater good, sending out a joint message to each’s membership base urging them, if able, to give financial assistance to those in need during this time of grief. Both party’s leadership highlighted the Arkansas Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund as a great way for members to give back.
Grocery stores around the state were established as essential businesses since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. However, while employees were still expected to show up to work, many stores took measures to keep both workers and their communities as safe and supported as possible. Some of the more common precautions in local stores included reducing store hours, limiting purchase quantities, providing gloves and masks for employees, prohibiting reusable shopping bags in stores, placing markers on the ground to encourage 6 feet of distance in check-out lines and offering alternate ways to shop including curbside pick up and delivery.
Walmart stores began closing overnight for cleaning, installing sneeze guards at checkout stations and pharmacies, and using wipes and cleaning spray for carts. Early on during the pandemic when “panic shopping” was a concern, Walmart, which employs around 1.5 million people in the United States, announced it would hire 150,000 temporary employees to help manage the surge of shoppers as well as paying bonuses totaling $550 million to hourly workers.
Edward’s Food Giant also installed sneeze guards and curbside pick up as well as the One Car, One Customer guideline, and Harps extended free home delivery for those susceptible to the virus until April 30.
Many grocery stores also encouraged the elderly population to shop in the early, opening hours when business is slowest. Some, such as Sam’s Club, Walmart, Kroger and Whole Foods, designated special senior shopping hours where those over a certain age were allotted time to complete their shopping without anyone else in the store.
Farmers & Producers
Although coronavirus safety measures forced many essential employees to face unnerving working conditions, many production industries provided not only protective equipment to those in need but also monetary compensation to frontline workers of their own.
Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, announced it would be providing nearly $60 million in bonuses to its 116,000 frontline team workers and truck drivers in the nation. Eligible employees can qualify for a one-time $500 bonus which they’ll receive in the first week of July. The company also waived its five-consecutive-day waiting period for short term disability benefits for its mandatory health-care coverage plan so sick employees can still receive pay. The company has also pledged $13 million in relief to provide resources to local communities. This includes grants for nonprofit organizations providing emergency response efforts such as rent and utility assistance, food distribution, health care, childcare, small business support and other economic recovery services.
Also in Northwest Arkansas, Ropeswing Hospitality Group, along with Tyson Foods and local farms and purveyors, formed a local relief network to provide essential meals to medical teams at Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas.
The beauty industry has also helped provide relief to those experiencing economic uncertainty due to the virus. L’Oreal USA supported essential workers through the donation of surgical and N95 respirator masks from its Arkansas and New Jersey locations to hospitals in local communities. The company-wide relief initiatives included this program among others, such as donating $250,000 to Feeding America to provide support for its COVID-19 Response Fund; producing hand sanitizer to be provided free of charge to employees and healthcare professionals; donating $1 million worth of personal care products to Feed the Children; freezing payments of small enterprises in its distribution network like salons until business resumes; and shortening payment times for suppliers most exposed to the economic crisis.
As the pandemic sparked panic buying throughout the state of Arkansas, companies like Little Rock-based CalArk International kept truckers rolling, some even overtime, to keep the supply chain moving.
Across the country and the state, our dutiful truck drivers worked around the clock to keep our store shelves stocked with necessities and our hospitals supplied with personal protective equipment.
Doctors, nurses and other health care workers across the country are on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19. Despite the increased risk of exposure, long work hours and concern over personal protective equipment supply, these warriors remain dedicated to providing quality care and serving our communities.
Arkansas hospitals and medical centers established guidelines to prevent transmission, offered online and phone screenings and set up testing sites for COVID-19. Many implemented policies to temporarily suspend elective surgeries and limit the number of visitors.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Services (UAMS) set up a drive-thru triage screening area at the corner of Shuffield and Jack Stephens Drive that will continue to see patients until the need is eradicated, daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. UAMS set up online screenings and a hotline at (800) 632-4502 for questions and phone screenings.
Conway Regional has a drive-thru testing site located outside of the west entrance on the hospital campus on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Screenings there continue and are also being conducted online or by phone at (501) 450-2290.
Washington Regional Medical Center has a screening clinic open daily and a screening hotline at (479) 463-2055. Washington Regional also dedicated its Urgent Care location in the William L. Bradley Medical Plaza in Fayetteville as a respiratory illness clinic for individuals who do not meet the testing criteria for COVID-19.
Over the course of the pandemic, Arkansas’ nursing homes were faced with protecting the most vulnerable members of society. In order to keep residents and employees safe, the facilities instituted a number of directives.
Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock began screening all employees, visitors, vendors and volunteers before entering the building, and refusing entry to anyone who failed, starting in early March. Later in the month, when the facility began restricting entrance to visitors, video calls were used to help encourage interaction with loved ones while still following infection control policies.
Many facilities, including Belvedere Nursing and Rehab in Hot Springs, also stopped offering tours for prospective patients. However, a virtual tour was posted on its website for those still interested in seeing the facility.
On Facebook pages, both of nursing homes and personal profiles, pictures of families standing outside residents’ windows with signs and balloons gained significant attention, showing that even during the pandemic, everyone was doing what could be done to remind those receiving end-of-life care that they’re still thought about and deeply loved.
Arkansas Department of Health
Even before Arkansas’ first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced in March, the Arkansas Department of Health has been ready to keep the virus at bay in the state. The secretary of the department, Dr. Nate Smith and the entire staff have worked tirelessly tracking and investigating cases, issuing procedural directives to the governor and establishing a call center for Arkansans to stay informed.
In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised Arkansas’ leadership for how the spread mitigation was handled in the state.
Educators, parents and children found out at the beginning of April that K-12 schools were closed for the remainder of the school year due to the pandemic. The Arkansas Department of Education worked closely with educators in Arkansas to ensure that students were able to learn at home through alternative methods of instruction (AMI).
The department also partnered with Arkansas PBS to provide AMI Learning Guides associated with daily educational programming broadcasted for pre-K through 8th-grade students in April. Virtual Arkansas and the nonprofit Arkansas Public School Resource Center offered lessons for high school students.
Everyone quickly adapted to having a new daily routine and working remotely. Educators found creative ways to teach and school districts made plans to support those without access to resources.
Seniors who were in good standing as of the third nine-weeks reporting period were considered “as meeting the graduation requirements” for the state of Arkansas. Local school districts were still allowed to make decisions in regards to policies for honor students, class rank and graduation.
Many celebrated Passover and Easter differently this year with social distancing in place. Faith leaders across the state made accommodations such as social media updates and live-streaming services. Some even organized drive-in worship services.
Bishop Anthony Basil Taylor, of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, was one of the first bishops in the country to cancel public Masses and nonessential gatherings at parishes. Some parishes began to offer Mass live on their Facebook or YouTube pages. St. Anne Catholic Church, in North Little Rock, set up the first parish-based drive-thru confessional in Arkansas in March. For Holy Week, bilingual masses were streamed on Facebook and YouTube, live from the House of Formation.
Rabbi Barry Block, at Little Rock’s Congregation B’nai Israel, lived-streamed Shabbat services on Fridays and hosted an online Torah study on Saturdays.
The Islamic Center of Little Rock continued to serve the community by organizing a weekly food bank and using social media to provide encouragement in addition to updates. Imam Mahmoud Al-Denawy answered religious questions through a daily khatira and hosted a virtual khutbah every Friday. The Islamic Center of Little Rock also live-streamed a series for children called “Know Your Faith” on Sundays.