Judge, Gary, and Feckless Motioner: Why Arkansas Needs More Than Another Task Force

That slogan is pretty terrible for COVID-19 messaging.

If you are the kind of person who pays attention to announcements that accomplish nothing, you might have heard last week that Gov. Asa Hutchinson1 announced the creation of a Winter Task Force2 to…review…or plan…or something…related to the state’s (woefully inadequate to this point) response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On that task force are the usual suspects for such things: Dr. Jose Romero (because he is Secretary of Department of Health), Dr. Greg Bledsoe (because he’s Mommy’s special angel and nominal surgeon general of the state), a representative for a nursing home lobbying group (because of course), etc.

The WTF had its first meeting yesterday, which it (somewhat surprisingly, since the state is “open for business” or whatever) held virtually. Around 1pm yesterday, Dr. Bledsoe tweeted a picture of the WTF Zoom call:

Here is where it gets interesting and demonstrates a lot of problems with Arkansas’s response to the pandemic overall.

If you look toward the bottom right of Bledsoe’s picture, you’ll see this guy, A.J. Gary:

Mr. Gary is the head of Arkansas’s Department of Emergency Management. From the looks of that picture, he attended the meeting from his office in Building 9501 on the grounds of Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock. According to the state transparency website, roughly 80 people are paid by the ADEM (not counting Gary), and their appropriation allows for up to 110 employees (including Gary), so it is safe to assume that some other people were in the ADEM building during a middle-of-the-day Monday meeting, right?

Well, Gary’s wife is Kim Gary, who is the Trial Court Assistant for Judge Charles Clawson, who is the circuit judge in Division 3 in the 20th Judicial Circuit (Faulkner, Van Buren, and Searcy Counties). Judge Clawson, with Ms. Gary present, started feeling sick last Wednesday (November 11). According to two people, Clawson was “obviously sick” on Thursday, which they only know because he nevertheless held court on Thursday and Friday, despite being sick. He also went to a baby shower at the prosecutor’s office on Friday.3

Then he went and got tested.

Surprisingly to absolutely nobody, on Sunday, his test came back positive for COVID-19.

So Ms. Gary was exposed to someone who was COVID-19 positive and symptomatic on Thursday and Friday, indoors, in close proximity, for hours. She then took that exposure home Thursday evening and Friday evening, and, by extension, Mr. Gary was also exposed. At some point on Sunday, Ms. Gary learned that Judge Clawson had tested positive, meaning that A.J. Gary went to work on Monday morning fully aware of his exposure to a documented, verified COVID-19 infection.

Now, of course, we should all hope that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Gary gets sick or develops symptoms. That is not the point, however.

We are dealing with a state where an elected judge, knowing that there is a pandemic going on, starts feeling sick but goes to court and a baby shower before he ever bothers to get tested. A state where his assistant then potentially carries that virus home to her husband, who then goes to work on Monday in an office building that he shares with dozens of other people. It would have been ridiculously easy for Judge Clawson to cancel court last Thursday so that he could get tested before possibly exposing anyone else to the virus.4 It would have been just as easy for Mr. Gary to quarantine/isolate due to his possible exposure and still participate in the WTF Zoom meeting.

Neither of them took these routes, for whatever reason. And that is a microcosm of what is going on in the state as a whole. Say whatever you want about “taking personal responsibility” and how we don’t need shutdowns or enforced mandates or whatever because “people will do the right thing.” The reality is that some people are simply still not taking COVID-19 anywhere close to seriously enough. We’re about nine months into this thing; at this point, when two men, who both have enough power and authority in their respective spheres to have avoided any unnecessary risk of spreading the virus, choose to ignore the risk and go about their business as usual, it is time to admit that your basing your response around individual responsibility has failed.

We already had a task force back in the spring. It came up with such brilliant solutions as “let’s ignore science and math and start reopening things on May 1” and “let’s not do anything close to a real shutdown because certain big-money retailers in the state would hate that.” When those ideas accomplished nothing and the cases began to rise precipitously following Memorial Day, Gov. Hutchinson still resisted a mask mandate for several weeks, only to capitulate and impose a mask “mandate”…that wasn’t really enforceable in any meaningful way.5 Now that the exponential growth has predictably6 reached a level where we are setting new records every few days in terms of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, pretending like the next step is another task force is not just ridiculous and insulting; it’s a complete abdication of leadership that is going to lead to more and more otherwise preventable deaths and long-term problems.

Under Arkansas law–and contrary to the assertions by certain legislators who never met a pandering opportunity they wouldn’t take–“The Governor is responsible for meeting and mitigating, to the maximum extent possible, dangers to the people and property of the state presented or threatened by disasters.”7 That statute allows the Governor to “issue executive orders, proclamations, and rules,” and specifically says that those “Executive orders, proclamations, and regulations have the force and effect of law.”8 It further gives the Governor broad, explicit powers to, among other things: “Suspend the provisions of any regulatory statutes prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders or rules of any state agency, if strict compliance with the provisions of any statute, order, or rule would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency;” “Utilize all available resources of the state government and of each political subdivision of the state as reasonably necessary to cope with the disaster emergency;” and “Control ingress and egress to and from a disaster area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises therein.”9

Rather than use any of these powers or the other powers available to him, however, the Governor has decided that a second, multi-person task force that will “study the problem” and “make suggestions” about possible solutions is the way to go. He wants input from people who are more on the front lines? Fine. Hell, that’s something that Asa should have been asking for over the past several months, honestly. But, ultimately, the buck stops with the Governor, and creating a task force is nothing but putting lipstick on his pig of a pandemic response thus far in lieu of exercising legal authority and taking real action.

In the meantime, as we have seen in this post and in real life, a non-zero percentage of the population will continue to ignore the few steps the Governor has already suggested, the problem will continue to get worse, and more and more Arkansans will die deaths that could have been prevented by actual leadership.

  1. (R-Trump’s Colon)

  2. That the initialism for this task force is literally “WTF” is too perfect to be real, yet here we are.

  3. Which is ridiculous on a couple of levels, honestly.

  4. It would have been both easy and far less absolutely absurd for him to also skip out on the baby shower if he did not know whether he had COVID-19.

  5. Arkansas: Where quelling the spread of a pandemic is a “local issue,” but management of the largest school district in the state is not.

  6. By definition, even!

  7. Ark. Code Ann. 12-75-114(a)

  8. Ark. Code Ann. 12-75-114(b)

  9. Ark. Code Ann. 12-75-114(e)