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Interview with the governor of Arkansas : "As a Republican, prescribing masks is not my first impulse"

Asa Hutchinson, 69, is a Republican and has been Governor of Arkansas since 2015. Around three million people live in the US state. The number of people infected with corona has risen sharply in recent weeks, with an average of more than 550 people infected each day in the last seven days. As of Friday, according to the New York Times, more than 26,000 Arkansas residents were infected with the corona virus. More than 300 died as a result.

Governor Hutchinson, Arkansas citizens are currently under a 14-day quarantine when returning from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. How bad is the corona crisis in your state?

We are seeing an increase in the number of infections that worries us. But Arkansas also has one of the lowest death rates in the country. Our hospital capacities are sufficient to deal with the current stress. We are also doing everything we can to level off the increase, hopefully successfully.

Would you also consider doing a complete shutdown if things got worse?

In theory, yes, if things get really bad, all measures are on the table. But that is currently not a question. We have sufficient hospital capacity: for our Covid 19 patients as well as for voluntary operations and other medical measures. The first thing to do would be to shift the number of unnecessary operations.

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They shut down the economy less than other states. Was that the right decision?

Yes, we took a targeted approach: We identified the companies and industries that pose the greatest risk. These were then given conditions. If there was an outbreak in restaurants or hairdressing salons, we would take targeted action. But that's not the case, so stay open.

What about schools? In the USA, there is up and down discussion as to whether they should open again after the summer break. Trump insists.

Long before the President's request, we converted our schools: to a part of face-to-face and part online lessons. We want to continue like this. Unless the situation worsened dramatically. It hurts students immensely when schools are closed. One of the safest places for a child to be is school. So we want to reopen the schools, of course taking protective measures into account.

One protective measure is wearing a mask. Nevertheless, this is a politically highly controversial issue in the USA. How do you explain that?

That is interesting. From my conversations with Europeans, I got the impression that they actually handle it in a very similar way: it is compulsory on public transport, for example, while it is highly recommended elsewhere. It is roughly the same with us. In addition, I have made it possible for certain cities to impose a mask requirement. And I myself behave in an exemplary manner and wear a face mask in public.

But why are Democrats more in favor and Republicans more against?

Democrats tend to be more in favor of government, while Republicans tend to be reluctant to use government power. We should avoid portraying this as a party political dispute. But I guess it's like this: As a Republican, it wouldn't be my first impulse to make something like this mandatory. We want to inform people and enable them to make the right decision themselves. Forcing them should be the last resort of politics.

Trump seems to have had enough of the ever-increasing number of infections and prefers to focus on reopening the economy. Is that right?

He trusts his Vice President Mike Pence to successfully lead the Corona Task Force. So he can focus himself on the economy and other topics. This is also urgently needed, because the damage to people is enormous if they do not have a job.

You don't worry that the number of infections is increasing almost everywhere in the country?

Yes, that is very worrying. The experts have predicted a steep increase, which should be followed by a decrease. But the virus behaves differently, more like fog that gradually rolls over the country: in the beginning it hit the east and west coasts, then it gradually spread across the entire United States. It will probably stay that way until we have a vaccine.

Germany uses a contact tracing app. Is this also an option for you?

We looked at that. But it is important that as many as possible take part. That would be rather difficult in Arkansas. We rely on people to provide information about who they have been in contact with. It actually works quite well, but above all it's accepted.

The US is currently debating racism and how to deal with the public symbols that are reminiscent of the civil war, that is, of the slave-holding southern states. Arkansas was also part of the southern states. How is the situation with you?

Of course, this is also being discussed in Arkansas. We too have protests and debates about Confederate monuments. We have already removed some after that was decided at the local level. But it has always been peaceful so far, I hope it stays that way.

Do you think it is better to decide on the spot than to take care of it centrally?

It depends on. Usually the responsibility for such monuments lies at the local level. It is important to me that we make a conscious decision as part of a political process instead of simply destroying it. Two examples: In the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol of Washington, where each state is allowed to set up two statues, we will exchange a sculpture. In the future, the civil rights icon Daisy Bates will represent Arkansas - instead of the lawyer Uriah Rose, who defended the confederation. We decided that before the start of the recent demonstrations. I also support a legislative initiative aimed at a law against hate crimes. I think that is a better way of dealing with this issue.

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