Effective immediately, Arkansas is lifting nearly all restrictions on businesses related to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Friday that all capacity limits on businesses and large gatherings will only be recommendations, and not enforceable by law.
Speaking in a news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson said the goal is to give businesses more flexibility to tailor public health guidelines to better fit with their day-to-day operations.
"They are incentivized to follow the guidelines because that gives them business liability protection, because the business liability protection is based upon following public health guidelines and making a good faith effort to make sure everyone is safe in their employment," Hutchinson said. "And so it does not mean a change in behavior that you will see."
Hutchinson says the statewide mask mandate will remain in effect until at least March 31. He says if the state meets certain criteria, including having a seven-day rolling average of positive COVID-19 tests under 10%, or fewer than 750 Arkansans hospitalized with the virus if testing is diminished, then the mask mandate will end on that date.
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said the state’s COVID-19 cases are trending downwards, though new variants of the virus could cause an uptick.
"Because we have not found them does not mean they are not here. Those variants spread more easily and, depending on the study, anywhere from 30% to 50% to 70% more efficiently, and therefore can spread more quickly. They also have, at least one of them, may have a higher rate of mortality, morbidity, than the current strain," Romero said.
Hutchinson said he is also extending the state’s public health emergency, which was set to expire Saturday, for another 30 days. He said the state can still re-impose restrictions if cases trend upward, including if new coronavirus variants cause a resurgence.
"I suspect that the variant is here in Arkansas, we just have not detected it yet… I’ve also watched other states that have the variant in place, and their cases continue to come down as well. And so that is a factor, we’ll have to watch it," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson says individual school districts can still choose to enforce masking and social distancing policies. He says the state’s lifting of restrictions will allow for indoor school-related activities such as athletic events and graduation ceremonies.