Gov. Asa Hutchinson says restaurants in Arkansas can resume limited dine-in service in less than two weeks as the state’s death toll from COVID-19 increases by seven.
He made the announcement at a daily press briefing Wednesday, saying 59 people have died while 3,192 people have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The governor outlined a phased approach for reopening restaurants, which have been limited to take out, drive-thru and delivery service since March 19. Under the first phase, dining rooms are allowed to reopen at 33% of the restaurant’s maximum capacity and groups of 10 people or fewer are required to be spaced six feet apart.
Restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol, though stand-alone bars and bar areas within restaurants will remain closed. All employees will be required to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms daily, and both staff and patrons will be required to wear face masks.
While Hutchinson had originally set May 4 as the target date to begin easing some restrictions on businesses put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said it was necessary to shift the date to May 11.
“It takes the businesses some time to get the employees back, to do the training, to do the adjustments that are needed, so they needed that lead time. And then secondly, it gives us an opportunity to continue to look at the facts and data over that period of time,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said the guidelines for restaurants were drafted by the Arkansas Department of Health and his Economic Recovery Task Force, chaired by investor Steuart Walton. Restaurants will be allowed to operate at 67% capacity under phase two of the plan, while the final phase marks a return to normal operations.
In anticipation of more business restrictions being lifted, Hutchinson announced a $15 million grant program to assist companies with expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic. Called the Arkansas Ready For Business Grant Program, companies can receive $1,000 for each full time employee or as much as $100,000 total.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said business owners can apply online for the grants, which are intended to help cover the cost of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
“If you think of these restaurants who maybe have been closed for a month or longer, they’re going to need to go through a deep cleaning process. They’re going to need to have thermometers… to go through all the things to make sure they’re meeting the health guidelines that have been set forth,” Preston said.
Hutchinson said the grant program is still subject to approval by the state Legislative Council, as well as his CARES Act steering committee.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said roughly one-third of the 59 people to die from COVID-19 in Arkansas were residents of nursing homes. He said 219 nursing home residents have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, as have 128 employees.
Of the state’s 3,192 total cases of the virus, Smith said 1,184 are considered active. As of Wednesday, 93 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Arkansas while 18 were on a ventilator. Those hospitalized include a total of 11 inmates of the Cummins Unit state prison, of whom three are receiving mechanical ventilation.
Smith said the state’s efforts at contact tracing continue to expand, with just under 200 people actively working on investigations. Those include Department of Health staffers, as well as faculty, staff and students from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health.
Hutchinson is expected to announce Thursday whether gyms can reopen in Arkansas by May 4, with announcements on hair salons and barbershops to follow on Friday.