Just in case you forget just how close West Memphis, Ark. is: Despite being separated by a river and a state line, it only takes about 15 minutes to get from West Memphis City Hall to Regional One Medical Center by car.
Which is to say that regardless of what coronavirus restrictions Ark. Gov. Asa Hutchinson puts in place or doesn’t – the “Natural State” is one of only seven states without a “stay at home” order – West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon knows the health and safety of his constituents will be impacted by what happens just east of the Mississippi.
And he’s not taking any chances.
“I’m in a unique position,” McClendon said Monday by phone. “I’ve got to do what’s going to be the best for everyone.”
McClendon has issued a citywide curfew that shuts the city down from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., excluding shift workers. He’s also closed city offices to the public and has instituted other safety measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a different approach than what’s coming out of Little Rock. On April 12, Hutchinson was on “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper saying that Arkansas’ sparse population reduces his state’s risk, adding that citizens are practicing social distancing and other safety measures without a governor’s mandate.
“If we need to do more, we will do more,” the Republican governor said. “That’s always an option on the table if we have to shelter in place. But right now, what we’re doing proves to be successful, this targeted approach.
“We have masks and social distancing and the people of Arkansas have embraced that. That gives you success,” Hutchinson said, adding later, “We want to take the long-term approach to this and you’re not going to win simply by a lockdown.”
As of April 15, The Arkansas Department of Health reported 1,562 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Shelby County alone has 1,359 confirmed cases. So for McClendon and the 26,000 residents he serves – about 56 percent African American – the realities on the ground are far different.
“You can actually walk from West Memphis to Downtown Memphis using Big River Crossing,” McClendon said. “And Shelby County has almost as many cases as the entire state of Arkansas. I’ve got I-55 and I-40 running through West Memphis, almost 70,000 vehicles coming through our city on a daily basis.
“So we’ve got to do the things necessary to keep West Memphians safe, compared to, you know, being in the middle of the state. There’s no other city in Arkansas that is as close to a metropolitan city like Memphis than we are. So I think that the rules have to be just a little bit different.”
McClendon, who has emerged as both an effective policymaker and inspirational leader, said the West Memphis City Council passed legislation to grant him power to handle the emergency, adding that his residents have largely complied with the curfew. Businesses, including grocery stores and liquor stores, are closed by 9 p.m. to honor the orders.
“The citizens have been 100 percent on board,” McClendon said. “The majority…is going in at 9 o’clock or before 9 o’clock. You may have a few young people that feel invincible and just want to be defiant, but the majority of the people support me and the council supports me.”
Officers are issuing warnings to violators, but McClendon said citations will be issued starting Monday, April 20.
McClendon supports necessary but limited movement – getting groceries, prescriptions, even taking walks in the park. “All those essential things you need to do, do it and come back home,” he said.
But his temper flares a bit thinking of people having large gatherings.
“We had some people at one time, were like, ‘It’s nice weather, let’s barbecue.’ And they’ve got 30 or 40 people in the yard. That’s just reckless, you know?” he said. “And they don’t understand that by being asymptomatic that you may feel better but then you go to your mom and your grandma. You can get them sick and possibly (COVID-19 could) take their lives.”
What about the economic impacts? Southland Gaming and Racing, which has been booming since the state allowed Vegas-style gambling just a year ago, is taking a beating with stay-at-home orders. But McClendon said that his city is in excellent financial shape, and exceptionally strong pre-outbreak revenues from the casino will help cushion fiscal hits to the city budget.
“The month they have been shut down, we’re going to be covered,” he said. “This city has always been in financial shape. And we own our own utilities anyway. (My administration) has made some great decisions, the former mayor also made some great decisions.
“We are in great financial position right now,” he said. “If Southland doesn’t open up for the rest of the year, we’ll still be in a position to do what we need to do.”
And the growth hasn’t slowed, he said. A steel mill is still projected to bring 700 jobs to the city and restaurant chains like Chick-Fil-A and IHOP are still moving forward with development plans there. He’s even researching opening a drive-in theatre – something family-friendly that can still be mindful of social distancing.
“We’ve got a lot of vacant land,” he said. “If there’s one thing West Memphis has, it’s a lot of land. So maybe three screens. And you’ll be six feet apart, because you’re in your car, listening to your movie on your radio system.”
And he’s still working the phones during the outbreak, trying to lure business and industry to his city.
“All the CEOs that own businesses, guess what? They’re home!” he chuckled. “So I’m trying to get our information to them. While you’re sitting around, ain’t got nothing to do, read our information.
“(We hope) that when this thing does pass us by, (they’ll think) ‘Hey, we’ve been researching West Memphis, Arkansas . . . and we’re going to move ahead with them because they’re ready.’”