Gov. Asa Hutchinson says Arkansas is lifting restrictions on gyms put in place due to the coronavirus outbreak as the state’s total number of deaths from COVID-19 rises to 61.
Hutchinson announced an increase of 63 new coronavirus cases and two additional deaths at a briefing Thursday, saying 3,255 people have tested positive for the virus in the state.
He said gyms and fitness centers can reopen by next Monday, May 4, but with restrictions in place to avoid further spread of the coronavirus. For instance, gym operators must ensure patrons are spaced apart by a minimum of 12 feet.
“Now that's important because as you're exercising, you're exhaling to a greater extent, and so the typical breathing goes beyond the six feet and so we want to have a little bit extra protective measures there,” Hutchinson said.
All customers and staff at gyms must wear facemasks except when exercising. Showers, swimming pools and saunas will remain closed, and gym equipment must be sanitized after each use.
Additionally, employees and patrons will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before entering facilities. People with with compromised immune systems or chronic diseases, or who have recently traveled to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Orleans or overseas, will not be admitted.
With an announcement on whether hair salons can reopen by May 4 expected Friday, Hutchinson said the state can continue to lift business restrictions if Arkansans follow existing public health guidelines.
“It’s all up to us as to how we do on this. And it’s all up to us individually and collectively as to whether we make progress and be able to open more up, or whether we are not successful and we have to retreat,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson announced Wednesday that restaurants in Arkansas would be permitted to offer limited dine-in service on May 11, while a ban on elective surgical procedures was lifted Monday.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said a private laboratory in Memphis is offering to complete roughly 1,000 coronavirus tests per day for Arkansas healthcare providers to help fulfill the state’s requirement for patients to get tested within 48 hours of a surgery.
“I know that there are some who are concerned about this and we were getting complaints even before 48 hours hours had gone by,” Smith said. “As time goes on there’ll be more laboratory capacity and over time we’ll be able to relax some of those rules. But right now this is what I think we need to do.”
Smith said 2,520 coronavirus tests were completed from Wednesday to Thursday, the largest volume of tests done in a single-day span in Arkansas. According to Smith, 95 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized as of Thursday, with 23 receiving mechanical ventilation.
A total of 13 inmates of the Cummins Unit were hospitalized with COVID-19 Thursday, while Smith said no new cases at the prison have been identified. He said the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City has seen a total of 101 staff and inmates test positive.
Hutchinson said a miscommunication between his office, the state Commerce Department and the Arkansas Legislature resulted in a “premature” rollout of a grant program for small businesses. The governor announced the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program at Wednesday’s briefing, designed to help businesses cover the cost of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
In that announcement, Hutchinson said the $15 million program was subject to approval by his CARES Act steering committee and the state Legislative Council. At Thursday’s briefing, Hutchinson said the online application for the grant program was made available before funding was approved, resulting in requests for a total of $36 million in grants in the roughly one-hour span the application was available.
Hutchinson apologized for the situation Thursday, saying he would work with lawmakers to increase funding for the program and to hopefully have the application available by early next week.