Restaurant industry divided on re-opening, casinos eager to implement new protocols

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,163 views 

Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said the plans in motion to re-open casinos, restaurants, parks and large venues are moving cautiously forward.

Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Hurst said the state’s three casinos have outlined new protocols to keep gamblers safe as Arkansas eases restrictions on businesses in the wake of COVID-19.

“[T]he owners of the casinos and their top-level staff have been working for weeks on a protocol that they can put in place that will protect their customers and their staff as well, and it’s a very in-depth protocol, very intensive. And so, that will be coupled with the Department of Health’s directives, a guidance document that is broader,” she said. “I think, with the limited capacity, the measures that they’re going to take to sanitize, I think it will be a safe way to move forward.”

If an infection were identified from a casino setting, Hurst believes the Arkansas Department of Health is prepared to contact trace its origins and isolate its spread.

“Certainly, we’ve talked about should there be a spike in infections, then we may have to back off of some of the loosening of restrictions. None of us want that. So, again, I think the industries are being very careful as they reopen to not cause an increase in infections. And, yes, the contact tracing is a very important piece of it. The Department of Health has factored that into their decisions and the various industries will capture names and be able to provide those to the Department of Health should an outbreak occur,” she said.

Arkansas began loosening restrictions on businesses about a week ago with target dates for other openings beginning later this month. While day use of most state parks was left intact, overnight camping was halted. Already, RV camping in some state parks has resumed. On May 15, more park services will be allowed including opening up food establishments, museums, exhibits, visitor centers and marinas. Also on that date, cabins, lodges and RV rentals will be permitted.

Hurst says her staff is prepared.

“We are doing that very gradually and carefully and thoughtfully,” she said, noting that there has been coordination between other states’ park systems in the decision-making process.

The restaurant and hospitality industry has been decimated by the coronavirus and subsequent shutdown. Food establishments largely resorted to take-out and delivery services after in-person dining was shut down over a month ago. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is allowing the resumption of in-person dining with proper social distancing guidelines and much lower seating capacity on Monday, May 11. Hurst said there is a big split in the restaurant community as some operators are still skeptical of contagion.

“There’s a bit of an urban-rural divide on this debate. I think that the restaurants that feel like they can open safely will do so. Those that feel like they can open with that very reduced capacity and still make money will do so,” she said. “Many will choose to wait for phase two, where restrictions will be lifted a little further. And many have pivoted and are using the curbside pickup effectively, and so they can hold off a little longer.”

You can watch Hurst full interview in the video below.