Restaurants in Arkansas are welcoming a limited number of patrons back to their dining rooms as over 4,000 people in the state have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Monday the state has seen a total of 4,043 people test positive for the virus, while 94 have died from COVID-19. The totals reflect an increase of three deaths over the weekend, and 59 new cases since Saturday.
Hutchinson said, though he’s concerned about the public not following social distancing guidelines, he’s confident the state can safely loosen restrictions on businesses.
“What you're seeing are… in some instances, what would have stayed open even if you’d had a shelter-in-place environment. So if you go to it our box stores, if you go to… some of the home stores, they've stayed open all through as an essential industry,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson delivered his daily press briefing on the pandemic Monday from the headquarters of gas station retailer Murphy USA, originally a subsidiary of Murphy Oil which announced last week it would relocate its headquarters from El Dorado to Houston.
With restaurants now allowed to operate dine-in service at 33% capacity, Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said other businesses reopening in Arkansas can face penalties if they do not follow Department of Health guidelines.
“For those industries that we license, of course, compliance with the directive is a condition of their licensure and they could have their license revoked or be shut down,” Smith said. “For those that we don't license we have the option of doing a cease and desist order, but again these are things that we prefer not to have to do because what we're putting in our directives, in our guidance, really benefits everyone.”
Smith said the state had 803 active coronavirus cases Monday, of which 86 are associated with nursing homes and 278 with correctional facilities. In total, 61 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in Arkansas, with 11 on mechanical ventilation.
Smith said a total of seven inmates of the Cummins Unit state prison have died from COVID-19, while nine remain hospitalized. Additionally, the number of infections at the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City has risen to 332 inmates and 16 staff.
Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said 23,000 self-employed Arkansans have filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments, which he said will be issued over the next few weeks. Additionally, he said the state is accepting applications for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends eligibility for unemployment insurance by 13 weeks for people who were unemployed prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
With over 100,000 Arkansans set to receive unemployment insurance payments this week, Preston said the governor’s decision to restrict only certain businesses has lessened the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s economy.
“Despite the large numbers that we see in Arkansas, it could be a lot worse compared to where other states currently stand. And a lot of that, I think, you can attribute to our not sheltering in place,” Preston said. “We’re allowing businesses to stay open in a safe, secure manner.”
Preston said the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program has received 12,300 applications, of which 94% are from businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Of those, he said, just under half are women or minority-owned businesses.
As of Monday, restaurants, gyms, places of worship and outdoor venues are allowed to operate with limitations in Arkansas, as are hair salons, tattoo shops and other cosmetology-related services. Indoor venues such as museums, movie theaters and casinos can resume limited operations on May 18, while recreational swimming pools can open on May 22.