While the leader of Arkansas’ economic response to COVID-19 said Friday he hopes to see the Economic Recovery Task Force’s efforts wrap up in the winter months, he expects some public health measures are here to stay.
Task Force Chairman Steuart Walton, during his First Friday Breakfast address to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, said Task Force members will "hopefully" finalize their strategy for the governor to move the economy to a sustainable level with public health guidance in mind by December or January.
Walton in an emailed statement to the Times Record following his address said he remains "optimistic" the state will recover economically despite active COVID-19 cases in the state remaining in the thousands.
"The Task Force will continue to serve the governor for as long as is needed," Walton said.
Arkansas on Thursday had 7,244 active COVID-19 cases. The Arkansas Department of Health that day reported 1,124 new cases, according to the Governor’s Office.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases has ebbed and flowed since rising in May after economic restrictions were lifted, according to Department of Health data from governor’s updates.
"It’s hard to believe we’re still addressing this COVID-19 thing," said Walton.
Walton said economics on a state, and even local level, directly reflect stimulus money and benefits handed down at a federal level such as the CARES Act signed into law in March. He also said COVID-19 case increases are directly tied to economic decline, especially in dining and retail.
But Walton cited practices like mask wearing, social distancing and limited event and venue capacities as public health measures he believes will allow businesses to function as the pandemic continues. He also said practices like outdoor dining at restaurants might be permanently encouraged after the pandemic subsides.
Companies should consider making their offices more attractive spaces to socialize, he added, since working from home has become more widely accepted.
"People are going to see people start to create spaces where people want to work, not where they have to," he said.
Walton advised Fort Smith, which on Tuesday had a 7.1% unemployment rate, can recover from the blow of COVID-19 by continuing initiatives started before the pandemic. He specifically pointed to the city’s focus on arts and culture, which in Northwest Arkansas have yielded a multi-million-dollar impact.
The continued financial support of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith was also pointed to as an initiative to help the city’s economy. Sebastian County voters on Nov. 3 will decide whether to continue the ¼% sales tax to support the university. The current sales tax is set to expire Dec. 31, 2021, but with the vote in May, will have a possibility of a 10-year extension.
The message was consistent with other speakers at the breakfast, who noted a significant number of UAFS graduates in recent years have taken jobs in Fort Smith.
"All communities have to challenge themselves to constantly evolve and innovate to progress," Walton said in response to a Times Record inquiry about the city, which from 2014-2018 had an average per capita income of $25,049, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Statewide, employers and communities can focus on inclusion, Walton said. He said this effort would help the economy because of different viewpoints and ideas that come when all groups are represented.
He also said employers, officials and residents should promote qualities of the state such as affordable housing and outdoor amenities.
"I don’t think the state’s reputation stacks up fairly with reality," he said.
Overall, Walton expressed confidence in the direction of the economy. He said the messaging and leadership from Gov. Asa Hutchinson has put the state in a good position.
But he also heeded caution about returning to normal too quickly.
"We’re confident it will end, but when it ends, do things just go back to normal? I don’t think that’s a good thing to do," he said.