We started reopening the economy in May, and today I’d like to talk about the encouraging numbers that we’re already seeing. More than 45,000 Arkansans are back at work. Our unemployment rate, which has remained below the national rate, dropped from 10.8 percent in April to 9.5 percent in May.

More and more people are getting back on their feet. We know this because the number of first-time claims for unemployment has dropped by over 4,000. Weekly claims are down by more than 13,000. Our civilian labor force in Arkansas increased by over 33,000; and our total number of jobs in May increased to 1.2 million.

Eight industries gained jobs that had been lost during the height of the pandemic unemployment. As restaurants, gyms, and recreation centers reopened, we added 13,400 jobs. Jobs in educational and health services increased by 9,100 as medical offices reopened. Trade, transportation, and utilities gained 4,300 jobs, mostly in retail. This is all good news.

I am grateful for the spirit and generosity of our business people during these difficult days, such as Bobby Fuller and his family, who own Fuller and Son Hardware. Their company will be 100 years old next year. Walter Fuller opened the first store at 28th and Arch in Little Rock in 1921. The company endured the Great Depression, World War II, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The fourth generation of Fullers is now involved in the company, which has six stores in Central Arkansas.

Bobby Fuller, who is the grandson of the founder, didn’t have to lay off any employees. Bobby rents space to two restaurants and a dentist, and he didn’t charge rent while they were closed.

Eric Buckner is another small business owner in Central Arkansas. He is the founder and owner of 10 Fitness gyms. Eric closed his gyms on March 17 and reopened under Department of Health guidelines on May 4. With the support of gym members and assistance through the federal Payroll Protection Plan, Eric paid his employees during the shutdown. The pandemic has inspired new ways to serve his members, such as renting out exercise bikes, spin bikes, and rowing machines for use at home. His trainers have produced workout videos. His biggest challenge is to make sure that his members wear their masks when they aren’t exercising.

Bobby and Eric share my conviction that masks are critical in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Eric tells of the two hairdressers in Springfield, Mo., who were symptomatic but didn’t tell their customers, and they were also members of Eric’s gym in Springfield. And they weren’t honest with the screeners at his gym when they asked about symptoms. 

Between them, they exposed more than 150 customers and gym members. But the hairdressers and their customers were wearing masks. And they wore masks at 10 Fitness. The health department found that no one who came in contact with the hairdressers at the salon or the gym contracted the virus.

So as we reopen the economy and people return to work, I urge you to wear a mask. This is critical as we continue to reopen our economy, and Arkansans return to work.

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