In a news conference last week, I announced that I was renewing the state of emergency through March 31. I also announced that we would be keeping the mask mandate through March 31, as well.
In the days before March 31, we will consider whether we can convert the mask directive to a guidance, which is just that – guidance. Adherence is voluntary, and there is no penalty for a violation. We must meet one of two benchmarks in order to lift the mask mandate. If we are testing an average of 7,500 a day with PCR and antigen tests and have a daily positivity rate of less than 10 percent, we will convert from a mask directive to guidance that strongly encourages masks but doesn’t require them. At the end of the month, if we haven’t met the threshold of 7,500 tests, then we can look at the number of hospitalizations. If the number of COVID patients in hospitals is less than 750 statewide, that will allow us to lift the mask mandate.
I also announced that since our COVID-19 numbers have been moving in the right direction, the secretary of health and I decided we could safely take some steps toward more normal lives. This includes converting all restrictions on businesses to less-restrictive guidance.
I have heard good reports since our announcement. Eric Buckner, who owns 10 Fitness gyms, said older clients have been returning. He said, “It’s nice to see some of our long-time members we haven’t seen in a while.” Eric also said the mask mandate has been helpful because it gave small businesses authority to enforce it. He said, “We wouldn’t have been able to stay in business without the mandate. It was a common-sense directive to keep people safe without destroying a business.”
Since the announcement, some restaurants have seen their business pick up overnight. Candy Wilkerson, owner of Capitol Smokehouse in downtown Little Rock, closed for seven weeks in the spring. She has chosen to remain at 66 percent capacity for now. She said the pandemic has been a struggle but that the Smokehouse is starting to come back.
We can’t keep the directives in place forever, and this cautious approach offers flexibility for our small businesses. We are able to loosen up a bit because Arkansans have followed the directives. We have vaccinated nearly 10 percent of our 3 million population, and as more people get the vaccine, our number of cases will continue to fall. We are not in the end zone. I encourage you to follow the Health Department guidelines and get your vaccine as soon as you can.
If the numbers start to rise again, we may have to renew the state of emergency on March 31. I encourage you to continue all the things you’ve done to put us at this point so we don’t have to go back. Let’s keep working together to push the pandemic out of the Natural State.