Gov. Asa Hutchinson is allowing places of worship and large outdoor venues to reopen today as 81 people in Arkansas have died from COVID-19.
Hutchinson announced at a daily press briefing Monday the state had seen five new deaths from the disease along with a total of 3,458 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
As gyms and fitness centers also reopen Monday, and with hair salons and restaurants set to reopen by next week, Hutchinson said he does expect some new infections to result from a loosening of restrictions on businesses.
“Yes, I expect to see some spikes. It’s just the nature of the virus. It very well could be in a prison environment, it could be somewhere else despite all of the controls that we’ve put into place,” Hutchinson said.
Under the state’s guidelines, venues and places of worship must ensure six feet of distance between groups of people and that people over the age of 10 wear face masks. Youth classes and childcare services at places of worship will not be allowed.
Audiences at large outdoor venues such as sports arenas and fairgrounds will be limited to 50 people, with every other row of seating occupied. Restrictions on indoor venues, such as movie theaters, museums and funeral homes are set to be lifted on May 18, according to Hutchinson.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the best way to know whether business restrictions should be put back into place is whether or not new outbreaks of the coronavirus occur as a result of restrictions being lifted.
“For example, if we have a cluster of infections related to a restaurant, or to a beauty salon or to one of these large outdoor venues. That will be our earliest and most sensitive indicator,” Smith said. “Then we can identify which of those restrictions needs to be tightened up.”
As of Monday the state had 1,362 active coronavirus cases while 91 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 16 on a ventilator. Though coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise, Smith said the state saw one of the smallest increases in new cases among members of the public, with just over half of the 27 new cases from Sunday to Monday coming from prisons in the state.
Smith said a total of five inmates of the Cummins Unit state prison near Pine Bluff have died from COVID-19, while 22 additional inmates of the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City have tested positive. So far 873 inmates at Cummins have tested positive, including those who have died, while 172 infections have been identified at FCI Forrest City.
Hutchinson also announced state lawmakers have agreed to set aside $55 million for grants to help small businesses pay for cleaning supplies and protective equipment for employees. Applications for the program, called “Arkansas Ready for Business”, will be available online beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Of those grants, which could reach as high as $100,000 per business, 15% will be reserved for businesses owned by women or people in minority communities, while 75% will be set aside for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston says self-employed Arkansans will soon have guidance on how to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments through an online portal.