Arkansas lifts most of its coronavirus safety restrictions

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday lifted most of the safety restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, except for a mask mandate he said would remain in place until at least the end of March.

Hutchinson announced the rollback of the safety rules as he extended the public health emergency he declared last year until the end of March. The Republican governor made the move a day after lawmakers advanced a bill requiring the state to refund fines it has collected from businesses for coronavirus safety violations.

The limits being lifted include capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms and large venues. They will remain in place as a guideline, or strong recommendations from the state health department. Hutchinson left open the possibility of reinstating the restrictions if there’s another surge in cases.

“You can’t have (restrictions) in place forever, and at some point we have to move away from those directives,” Hutchinson said. “This gives us a safe path to move forward following the guidelines.”

Hutchinson’s move follows other states that have lifted or eased coronavirus safety rules in recent weeks. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this month lifted her state’s mask requirement and capacity limits for bars and restaurants.

But public health experts say it’s too soon for states to ease up on their safety measures, especially with virus mutations spreading in the U.S. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that recent gains against the virus may be stalling.

“Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday.

Dr. Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, compared the situation in Arkansas and other states to the 7th inning stretch of a baseball game.

“It’s a moment that’s appropriate to stand up and stretch, but not celebrate because the game’s not over yet,” Tsai said.

Arkansas has not reported any virus variants in the state, and the state’s health secretary said he believed the state had a robust testing system to monitor and advise the governor if any restrictions needed to be reinstated.

Hutchinson said Arkansas’ mask mandate will be lifted at the end of March if the the state’s positivity rate is below 10%, with at least 7,500 specimens tested on an average daily basis. If the state tests fewer specimens, the mandate would end if hospitalizations are below 750 patients.

Arkansas has recently seen a drop in new cases and hospitalizations, with the rolling average number of daily new cases over the past two weeks decreasing by nearly 55%, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Arkansas on Thursday had a test positivity rate of about 10%. The state said Friday that the number of patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 fell by 18 to 504.

Arkansas reported 516 new virus cases, bringing its total since the pandemic began to 318,638. The state’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 10 to 5,407.

Hutchinson said businesses will still have an incentive to follow the safety recommendations because they would lose protection from coronavirus lawsuits under another order he signed last year. That protection applies to businesses substantially complying with the state’s virus rules and guidelines.

Montine McNulty, the CEO of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said she expected most restaurants would continue keeping some or all limits in place.

“I do think that restaurants in general know that they have to have a safe environment to get their customers to come back,” she said.

Hutchinson has faced pushback from some Republicans over the restrictions. The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved legislation requiring Arkansas to refund fines it collected from some businesses for violating virus safety measures.

The governor said he wouldn’t sign the refund legislation, now pending before a House committee, if it reaches his desk.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, the bill’s sponsor, said he still planned to move forward with the bill as well as a lawsuit he and other legislators followed challenging the virus restrictions. The lawsuit, which is before the state Supreme Court, argues the restrictions required legislative approval.

“Unbounded power is just not a part of what our constitution is,” Sullivan said.