Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday, citing progress in the fight against the novel coronavirus, changed COVID-19 directives to "guidelines" and put a possible March 31 end date on the statewide mask mandate.
While he extended the state's health emergency order through the end of March, the governor also removed the threat of penalties against business owners — including bars, restaurants, gyms, salons and indoor and outdoor venues — that don't follow state standards for seating capacity and social distancing.
"We've made progress in the pandemic. Businesses have adjusted and made changes in their business model in the interest of public health, and we've seen a steady decline in cases," he said. "Also, we've had increased public education, so the public knows exactly what is needed to stop the spread of the virus. They know where they can go safely, where they can't go safely, and they can make those judgments."
The Republican governor, who has faced pressure from state lawmakers who have chafed under his emergency directives, said Arkansas could return to mandates with potential penalties if case numbers and hospitalizations rise again. But he said Arkansans need to understand how the state will move out of the pandemic and "into a more normal life."
"We are outlining how we get there," he said.
Hutchinson also set March 31 as the possible end date for his mask mandate. The mandate would go away if Arkansas meets certain benchmarks around COVID-19 testing, positivity rates and hospitalizations.
Arkansas has recently seen a drop in new cases and hospitalizations, although new case numbers did rise as testing increased after a week of historic cold and snow. As of Thursday, the state had a test positivity rate of about 10%, with 522 patients hospitalized because of COVID-19, according to the Associated Press.
Hutchinson said that even though he's converting the directives to guidelines, he doesn't expect to see a change in Arkansans' behavior. He said state government will continue to tell departments to follow social distancing guidelines and mask wearing when distancing isn't possible.
He said businesses will be incentivized to follow the guidelines because doing so gives them protection from lawsuits by employees and customers. Hutchinson last year signed two executive orders to protect businesses and employees from lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure. The protections do not apply to willful, reckless or intentional misconduct and presumes that actions are not willful or reckless if business owners substantially comply with public health directives.
Hutchinson said Friday's changes don't change rules around quarantine and isolation. Those directives remain in place.
Hutchinson's announcements came the day after the state Senate voted to refund the fines the state has collected from some businesses for violating COVID-19 restrictions.
That legislation, which now heads to the House, was sponsored by a Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, who has filed a lawsuit challenging the state's coronavirus restrictions. Hutchinson said he opposed the bill "because it undermines fairness, compliance and public health."