LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Governor Asa Hutchinson on Friday morning announced that emergency orders covering the response to COVID-19 in Arkansas would be extended into March while also lifting some regulations.
The current emergency order in Arkansas was set to expire on February 27.
Hutchinson said he had waited to make this announcement to have time to evaluate the current pandemic response in the state, including tracking recent drops in new case numbers and active case counts and growth in the number of residents receiving vaccinations.
Under these orders, the state’s mask mandate will remain in place through March 31, though Hutchinson outlined a plan where the mandate could be lifted if positive tests number remain under certain levels.
The governor also announced that many state directives tied to businesses during the pandemic would be moving to a “guideline” status, noting that fines and other penalties would no longer apply.
This would apply notably to businesses like restaurants, gyms and indoor venues, which have all be dramatically affected by regulations on how many customers they can serve at any given time.
Hutchinson said he believes these business owners will follow the state’s recommendations without the threat of penalties and that the public will also be able to make their own choices as to which businesses to visit.
Answering questions after his announcement, the governor noted that he hoped Arkansas legislators would reconsider a measure to refund COVID-19 related fines to businesses, saying he would not sign the law if it came to his desk.
The first cases of COVID-19 were found in Arkansas in mid-March of 2020, and just days later the state issued restrictions for public schools.
In the days that followed, restaurants, bars and casinos would also face restrictions, followed by other industries.
After reaching grim milestones earlier this month including crossing 5,000 deaths in the state, active cases of the disease have been trending down in recent weeks in Arkansas, aid by a sharp uptick in vaccination rates.
During a news conference Tuesday, Hutchinson announced an expansion of the Phase 1-B vaccination plan to include Arkansas residents over the age of 65, down from the previous age of 70.
While a number of older residents welcomed the move that got them closer to access to a vaccination, some other groups designated for Phase 1-B, including workers in food service, grocery stores and non-emergency medical care, voiced frustration that they were being passed over in line for a dose.
Hutchinson is scheduled to give his address at 9 a.m.