Restaurants can begin limited openings on May 11; $15 million grant program created

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,697 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday (April 29) announced the Ready for Business grant program.

Arkansas restaurants can begin a limited reopening on May 11, with the state establishing a $15 million grant fund to help restaurant and other business owners reopen in a way that Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said will help build consumer confidence.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday (April 29) during his daily COVID-19 briefing the phased opening of restaurants. The governor also said he is encouraged in the downward trend of new COVID-19 cases and the number of hospitalizations.

As to the restaurants, the opening will allow for 33% of building capacity to open for dine-in service in phase 1. If successful, a phase 2 opening would allow for 67% of capacity, and phase three would allow for 100% capacity. Following are other guidelines outlined by Gov. Hutchinson:
• Physical distancing must be maintained between patrons.
• Reservations are encouraged.
• Face coverings are required for patrons and staff. Patrons can remove the mask when food is served.
• Gloves are required for restaurant staff.
• Daily screenings are required for restaurant staff.
• Frequent hand washing is necessary.
• Patrons should pre-order when possible.
• No groups over 10 people.
• A senior hour is encouraged.
• No self-service.
• Tables and menus must be cleaned and disinfected after each meal.
• Bars and entertainment within restaurants are prohibited.

Gov. Hutchinson said the Arkansas Department of Health will issue a more detailed directive for restaurant owners and operators later Wednesday. Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said restaurant workers should remember to change gloves or wash gloved hands between customers.

Jeff Hodges, owner of Springdale-based restaurant/sports bar chain Foghorn’s, said he is comfortable with a phased-in approach.

“I’m OK with a partial reopening. We are still hiring and ramping staffing levels up now. Any chance to increase sales I’m for, of course adhering to all safety guidelines,” said Hodges, who operates six restaurants, with two in Fayetteville and one each in Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Conway.

Jeff Gosey, owner of AJ’s Oyster House in downtown Fort Smith, said a partial opening can be risky. If it doesn’t work, it could hamper a restaurant’s ability to continue with take-out and curbside service.

“It’s a huge risk. If you were to get one of your employees sick in there or if someone else claims to have got sick there, then everyone has to go home for 14 days,” Gosey said. “We have a lot of outdoor seating, so we’re fortunate, … but to be honest with you, it’s a big risk to open up, no matter what they (new guidelines) are.”

Gov. Hutchinson unveiled the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program, to be administered by the Arkansas Department of Commerce, for the purpose of helping a wide variety of businesses that may be allowed to reopen in the coming weeks and months. Preston said consumers also need to know that the businesses are safe to visit.

“[Consumer] confidence means they feel safe to go out. We wanted to make sure that we could help businesses mitigate that risk and that loss. … If you think of these restaurants who may have been closed for a month or longer, they’re going to need to go through a deep cleaning process, they are going to need to have thermometers to be able to scan their employees, to go through all the things to make sure they are meeting the health guidelines that have been set forth,” Preston said Wednesday.

The $15 million grant fund is capped at $100,000 per grant and is open to all business sectors. Applications should be available at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the AEDC website.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 3,192 as of Wednesday, up from 3,111 on Tuesday. Of the total cases, 1,184 are active cases, down 29 from Tuesday. The number of deaths rose from 52 to 59. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 93 on Wednesday, down from 104 on Tuesday. Of the COVID-19 patients, 18 were on ventilators, down from 20 on Tuesday. The number of healthcare workers with COVID-19 was 340, up from 333 on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday at 1 pm. there were 1,027,295 U.S. cases and 58,965 deaths. Globally, there were 3,157,459 cases and 219,611 deaths.

Northwest Arkansas Business Journal Editor Paul Gatling contributed to this report.