Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday said he's accepted a recommendation by his Winter COVID-19 Task Force to direct bars, restaurants and clubs licensed to sell alcohol to close by 11 p.m.
The directive, issued by the state Department of Health and outlined in this executive order, takes effect Friday and runs through Jan. 3. It covers restaurants, bars, and private clubs with "on-premise" alcohol permits.
"In an effort to reduce the spread of the virus as a result of prolonged social interaction in group settings, I am accepting the recommendation of the Winter COVID Task Force to require bars, restaurants, and clubs that sell alcohol for consumption in their establishment to close at 11 p.m.," the governor said in a news release. "This is a balanced approach that is limited and targeted as we work to reduce new COVID cases in our state."
The order comes on the same day Arkansas reported 2,238 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases and 22 new deaths. Hutchinson said he will address "the high number of cases" and hospital capacity at a news conference at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
The order says that anyone violating the "may be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor" and could face a fine of $100 to $500 or "imprisonment not exceeding one (1) month, or both."
"Based on available scientific evidence, and in order to encourage the use of face coverings and social distancing, it is necessary and appropriate to take further action to ensure that COVID-19 remains controlled and that residents and visitors in Arkansas remain safe," the order states.
The governor formed his Winter Task Force last week, and it met for the first on Monday. It's charged with finding ways to better coordinate the COVID-19 caseload statewide and how the state can help hospitals in increasing their staff resources to manage the surge in cases.
The panel, which includes hospital leaders from around the state, is chaired by the governor, who has resisted imposing restrictions on Arkansas businesses since the state loosened emergency rules imposed in the early weeks of the pandemic. Unlike many states, Arkansas never fully "shut down" amid the virus, and the governor has used that as a selling point in his administration's economic development efforts.
Earlier this week, Hutchinson rejected a White House panel's recommendation that indoor restaurant dining capacities be scaled back significantly in most of the state. On Wednesday, nearly 300 doctors urged the governor to impose other restrictions, including closing bars and gyms.
"We don't want to shut down and I don't expect that to be the result of this task force," Hutchinson told reporters last week. "But I do want to give them the latitude to give me options and discuss anything they think needs to be done."
Rob Byford, owner and developer of the Library Kitchen and Lounge in Little Rock, told Arkansas Business that the new limits on operating hours will hurt his business.
"Two hours is going to be detrimental to us," he said. "… So, I can barely get over 30% in my building when we're busy to begin with, and now we're having five hours cut out of our weekend, and an hour of every night during the week. It's tough. And I would argue that we have the same rules and measures in place during the daytime or during our regular dinner hours."
Byford said his kitchen has been open until midnight or 1 a.m. on weekends. While full capacity is 300 people, he's been allowing only 110 people inside at a time, he said.
He added that the number of customers frequenting the business doesn't change substantially after 11 p.m.
"It's not like, at 11 o'clock, music is turned way up and people go nuts," he said.