Arkansas Expands Virus Vaccinations, Drops Mask Mandate


Arkansas Expands Virus Vaccinations, Drops Mask Mandate
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file) (Office of the Governor)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas will open up coronavirus vaccinations to anyone 16 and older, and is dropping its mask mandate immediately, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday.

Hutchinson announced the moves after the state saw virus cases and hospitalizations continue to decline in recent weeks. The state had previously made the vaccine available to people 65 and older as well as several other groups, including teachers, health care workers and food service employees.

“We want to make sure we maximize every opportunity to get this life-saving vaccine into the arms of Arkansans and to accelerate that to the extent that we can," the Republican governor said at his weekly news briefing on the virus.

More: Can I still require masks at work? What lifting the mask mandate means for Arkansas business owners and employers.

The move comes after the state saw slow demand for the vaccine, even as it has steadily opened up eligibility. 

Hutchinson is lifting the mask mandate despite President Joe Biden urging states to reinstate or maintain such restrictions to stave off another surge of the virus. 

Hutchinson last month lifted most of the state's virus restrictions, including restaurant and bar capacity limits, and had said the mask mandate would expire at the end of March if the state met goals for test positivity and hospitalizations.

The governor said ending the statewide mask mandate won't prevent businesses, including restaurants and hospitals, from enforcing their own mask rules and he said he expected most would continue requiring them. 

“Please be respectful and mindful that while the mask mandate is lifted, there will be many that continue to wear it and many businesses will continue to require it," he said. “Be respectful of that and if you don't want to comply with that, you have options to go somewhere else."

Hutchinson said cities also can enforce their own mask requirements, reversing from his comments a week ago that local mandates would not be allowed. 

Before Hutchinson issued the statewide mandate last year, the cities of Little Rock and Fayetteville had imposed their own mask requirements. Fayetteville said Tuesday its mask ordinance would remain in effect.

School districts can also continue requiring teachers and students to wear masks.

The decision was made even though some business owners said a mandate was needed to reassure customers who want to go back out again.

“We honestly believe that as more people are vaccinated, it will increase people's tendency to come back into the restaurants," Jim Keet, a former state legislator who owns several restaurants, told lawmakers Monday.

Hutchinson didn't rule out the possibility of reinstating the mandate if needed.

“If our population is not getting vaccinated and we see an increase in the virus, then sure, we're going to have to take a look at measures we need to take," Hutchinson said. 

Hutchinson's decisions came a day after lawmakers allowed the governor to extend for two more months the emergency he declared because of the pandemic. A legislative panel rejected an effort to end the declaration under a new law that expanded the Legislature's powers during an emergency.

Hutchinson has faced pushback from fellow Republicans in the Legislature over the state's virus restrictions. The House and Senate on Tuesday also voted to suspend their rules requiring masks in their chambers.

The state's active virus cases, meaning ones that don't include people who have died or recovered, fell by 56 to 1,717, according to the Department of Health. COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by six to 170 and deaths increased by 15 to 5,616.

Overall, Arkansas' virus cases increased by 178 to 330,186 since the pandemic began.

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