Citing Arkansas' decline in newly identified infections, its vaccination efforts and precautions being taken by residents and businesses, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday lifted almost all of the Department of Health's directives aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus but kept the state mask mandate until at least March 31.
"You can't keep directives in place forever where you have penalties, where you have enforcement and you also have the temptations for citizens to be reporting on each other," Hutchinson said.
The Republican governor said the requirement for Arkansans to wear masks in public places will end March 31 if, at that time, less than 10% of the state's coronavirus tests are positive over a rolling seven-day period and at least 7,500 tests are being conducted each day.
If fewer than 7,500 tests are being conducted a day, the mandate will be lifted if fewer than 750 patients with covid-19 are in hospitals.
In the meantime, other department directives related to the virus -- affecting restaurants, bars, hair salons, sports venues and many other places -- are now nonbinding "guidance," which Hutchinson described as "a strong recommendation based upon medical consensus."
"The reasons for this, as I've stated: We've made progress in the pandemic, business have adjusted and made changes to their business model in the interest of public health, and we've seen a steady decline in cases," Hutchinson 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."
Hutchinson said his announcement didn't affect requirements for Arkansans who test positive for the virus to isolate themselves, in most cases for at least 10 days after developing symptoms or testing positive, and for people who were near someone who tested positive to quarantine themselves for up to 10 days after the exposure.
He said the restrictions that were lifted could be reimposed if cases begin spiking.
"Let me emphasize that because we're changing these directives to guidelines does not mean that you're going to see a change in behavior, and I do not expect to see a change in behavior," Hutchinson said.
"For example, in state government we will be telling our departments of government that they need to continue to follow the distancing, the social distancing guidelines. We need to continue following the wearing of masks when you cannot social distance."
Hutchinson said businesses still have an incentive to follow the guidelines because of the potential that they could face lawsuits from people who catch the virus on their premises.
An executive order Hutchinson signed in June gives businesses protection from such lawsuits except in the case of "willful, reckless, or intentional misconduct resulting in injury or damages."
Hutchinson also extended the public health emergency that he first declared in March of last year to March 31.
He said that would keep in place the liability protection for businesses as well as other measures, such as an expansion of telemedicine and an option for children to attend school virtually, until the Legislature enacts those into law.
Even if Legislature adopts those provisions, it's possible the governor could extend the emergency declaration beyond March 31 "to allow for flexibility in responding to unforeseen consequences from the virus," spokeswoman Katie Beck said in an email.
The move to lift the restrictions was made as the state count of cases rose by 516 -- the fourth daily increase in a row that was bigger than the one a week earlier, when testing was slowed by winter weather.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 10, to 5,407.
The announcement was made days after Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, filed a bill that would give lawmakers more options for terminating a statewide public health emergency declaration.
Senate Bill 379 also would require extensions of an emergency declaration, as well as executive orders and Health Department directives issued pursuant to the emergency, to be submitted for legislative review.
Hammer, who said he and the House co-sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, have met with Hutchinson and his staff about the bill, said he hopes to present it to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee next week.
"We're going to press full steam ahead, because 379 is not a personal attack on the governor," Hammer said. "It is taking lessons that we've learned from the situation that we're under and applying it to future emergencies that may come."
"What triggered this announcement today is the fact that the current emergency expires tomorrow, and so I had to make a decision," Hutchinson said.
"Obviously, legislative input has been valuable, and I hear what they say, but it is based upon simply the fact that the current emergency is expiring, and then secondly the progress that we have made very dramatically in the last two or three weeks indicates that we can safely make these adjustments."
Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, called Hutchinson's announcement "a step in the right direction," but he questioned why Hutchinson hadn't already pushed to have his executive orders on telemedicine and other issues codified through legislation.
"The issue has always been our legislative participation, and there's still no participation by the Legislature," he said.
Senate Bill 301, sponsored by Sullivan, would require the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division and Health Department to refund fines related to the enforcement of emergency covid-19 directives.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said the division will now suspend its covid-19-related compliance checks of bars and restaurants.
"[The Alcoholic Beverage Control Division] remains ready to resume these visits should they be required under new directives," Hardin said in an email.
Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, vice chairman of Hutchinson's winter covid-19 task force, said he supports Hutchinson's move to lift the restrictions.
He said the panel, made up of hospital administrators, health experts and others, didn't discuss the idea of lifting all the Health Department's directives at its most recent meeting, on Tuesday.
"We talked about the case rates around the state and the general consensus was, we're in a much better place than we were in January," he said.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said state officials will be watching the percentage of tests that are positive and the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 to see if restrictions need to be reimposed.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said 7.9% of the state's polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests were positive in the seven-day span ending Thursday.
After rising Thursday, the number of state patients hospitalized with covid-19 fell by 18, to 504.
Among the requirements that were lifted through Hutchinson's action Friday were ones that limited seating at restaurants to 66% of capacity and required seats at adjacent tables to be spaced 6 feet apart.
Another rule had prohibited communal dining and routine visits by the family and friends of residents at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care facilities where three or more residents or workers had tested positive within the past 14 days.
Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said the lifting of that restriction allows for "drastic changes in visitation at assisted-living and residential care facilities because they're governed at the state level and not federal level."
That's especially true for such facilities in counties in which the percentage of coronavirus tests in the community that are positive -- known as the "positivity rate" -- is low.
"I would anticipate that some of those facilities would continue to follow the former directive, now guidelines, and keep those things the same, especially if their county positivity rate is high, but I think that a lot of others will start to really increase visitation, communal dining, things like that," Bunch said.
But she said nursing homes, whose residents generally have greater medical needs, also have federal restrictions on visitation. Those rules prohibit routine, indoor visits at homes that have had a "new onset" of cases in the past 14 days.
The rules also restrict visits based on the positivity rate in the county.
Lifting the state requirements "might slightly increase" the amount of visits allowed at nursing homes, "but that's yet to be determined," Bunch said.
Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amy Webb said visits at human development centers, which house people with developmental disabilities, also are governed by federal regulations and won't be affected by the lifting of the state restrictions.
Also lifted were requirements for organizers of events -- including school graduation ceremonies -- with more than 100 people to submit plans to the Health Department for approval.
School district policies designed to curb the spread of the virus will remain in place "at the discretion of the local [school] boards," Hutchinson said.
In a memo posted on the state Department of Education's website, Education Secretary Johnny Key said the department "strongly encourages schools to continue to follow the guidelines provided by the Department of Health, not only for everyday operations, but also for academic and extracurricular activities."
"We want to emphasize that adherence to the guidance has allowed Arkansas schools to operate onsite safely all year with minimal disruption for school-wide or district-wide modifications to onsite instruction," Key said in the memo. "While districts have discretion and flexibility in determining how to follow the guidelines, there are important considerations and risks when hosting school events or activities that do not require social distancing and capacity limitations"
Among higher-education institutions, some of the largest state universities described taking another look at their operations.
"Our policies and guidelines remain in effect at this time," University of Arkansas, Fayetteville spokesman Mark Rushing said in a statement.
He added, however, that "with Gov. Hutchinson's announcement, we are beginning to review and assess our policies and guidelines along with updated guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health and the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in order to support the health and safety of our campus community."
A University of Central Arkansas spokeswoman, Amanda Hoelzeman, in an email said the Conway campus is "still reviewing the Governor's new directives and how those may or may not impact our policies."
Arkansas State University plans to keep its framework for campus operations -- including masks -- unchanged through the spring semester, spokesman Bill Smith said, referring to guidelines known on the Jonesboro campus as Return to Learn.
ASU's spring semester is set to end with final exams May 3-7.
"At this time, Arkansas State plans to continue operating under its Spring 2021 Return to Learn plan through the end of the semester. This includes maintaining physical distancing in the classroom and wearing masks indoors when in the presence of others," Smith said in an email.
VARIANTS A CONCERN
As cases and hospitalizations have plummeted around the country, several other states recently have loosened restrictions.
Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform for the San Francisco-based Kaiser Family Foundation, said the risk is lessened by vaccinations and people who have some immunity after recovering from infections.
Slightly warmer weather, leading people to spend less time indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, should also help, she said.
But she said more contagious variants of the virus that have spread to most states raise the possibility that cases could surge back.
"You might expect cases to go up a bit as you ease some of these restrictions, but if there begins to be a spike in cases, I think states should be prepared to take action fairly quickly," she said.
The CDC hadn't reported any cases of the variants in Arkansas as of Friday.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said it's reasonable for states to lift restrictions as long as they have adequate hospital capacity and ability to conduct contact tracing and accelerate their vaccination efforts.
According to the Health Department, pharmacies and other providers participating in the vaccination effort coordinated by the state had received 870,590 doses of vaccine as of Friday morning, up 35,000 from the total as of a day earlier.
The doses the providers reported having administered rose by 20,816, to 560,854.
In addition, the Health Department said Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and pharmacies belonging to the Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network had administered 41,805 doses that were allotted through federal programs.
That was an increase of 3,324 from the total as of a day earlier.
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The number of state virus patients on ventilators fell by Friday 10, to 98.
The cases added to state tallies included 412 that were confirmed through PCR tests and 104 that were identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The cumulative count of cases rose to 318,638.
That included 251,711 confirmed cases and 66,927 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 241, to 4,479, as 747 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 75; followed by Benton County, which had 54; Sebastian County, which had 28; Washington County, which had 25; and Garland County, which had 20.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by six.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the Varner Unit in Lincoln County had three new cases.
The Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and the Randal L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff had one new case each, she said.
The state death toll grew by nine, to 4,348, among confirmed cases and by one, to 1,059 among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the count of virus deaths grew by one, to 2,023.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 33, to 14,747.
The number of the state virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by two, to 1,518.
Information for this story was contributed by Jaime Adame and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.