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Little Rock, North Little Rock officials closer to easing virus rules

by Joseph Flaherty, Stephen Simpson | May 29, 2021 at 8:37 a.m.
Whitney Campbell, a pharmacist for Express Rx, gives Mayor Frank Scott Jr. a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at the Express Rx at Otter Creek in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

More local governments are taking steps to ease public-health restrictions in government buildings imposed during the pandemic in light of increasing rates of vaccination against covid-19.

In a news release issued Friday, the city of Little Rock announced the City Hall building on West Markham Street would reopen to the public Tuesday.

Visitors will have to continue to wear masks until further notice, along with city staff. The city's local mask mandate requiring face coverings in public settings where social distancing was impossible was lifted effective May 15.

"We look forward to having the public inside City Hall once again," Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said in a statement included with the release. "We appreciate their patience over the past 15 months as we have sought to protect not only them, but the employees who work inside City Hall to serve our residents."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

For people unable to visit the building in person or uncomfortable venturing out, Scott said officials "will continue many of the online and virtual experiences we have offered which have allowed us to efficiently serve the public."

City board meetings and meetings of various boards and commissions will not return to City Hall yet, according to the news release, owing to social-distancing and technology constraints.

Weekly meetings of the Little Rock Board of Directors have been held at the Robinson Center during the pandemic.

Some members participated via teleconference software while others attended in person. However, in recent weeks, all but one member -- Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix -- have resumed regular in-person attendance.

At a board meeting Tuesday, City Manager Bruce Moore indicated city directors would have to relocate from the Robinson Center after their June 8 meeting. The June 15 meeting will be held at Southwest High School, he said.

The mask mandate for city buildings in North Little Rock also will be lifted Tuesday.

Mayor Terry Hartwick released an executive order Friday to lift the mask mandate and fully reopen all city buildings in North Little Rock.

"If you have not been fully vaccinated, we recommend wearing a face covering that fits completely over the nose and mouth, although it is not mandatory," Hartwick said in the executive order. "Additionally, those who prefer to continue wearing a mask (even if vaccinated) are welcome to do so."

Private entities, along with health care facilities, still have the right to mandate masks for their buildings.

Hartwick said he has been thinking about lifting the mask mandate for the past month.

"I have been talking to our health department officials and watching the numbers, and if everybody is getting their shots then it takes the guessing out of it now," he said. "It's the right thing to do at this time."

The North Little Rock mayor said lifting the mask mandate will be good for the city and will allow things to get back to normal.

"We will be opening up our City Council chambers again, and I know a lot of people are excited about that because it can be hard to relay a message over the phone," Hartwick said.

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde also said Friday that he would allow the executive order closing county buildings to expire June 6.

This would allow individuals into all county buildings as long as they follow mask guidelines.

"All persons entering county buildings will be required to wear a mask at all times and wear it properly and practice social distancing," Hyde said.

According to Hyde, employees alone in an office would be allowed to remove their masks, but employees in an open area in a building would need to wear a mask.

Information for this article was contributed by William Sanders of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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