Editor’s note: Updated with changes and additions throughout.
Arkansas businesses may move into a phase two reopening of the state economy on June 15, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday (June 10). However, he warned that Arkansans must remain focused on prevention measures because “we are still in the heart of the woods … when it comes to this healthcare emergency.”
Phase two would allow fewer restrictions for business openings. For example, restaurants – the most impacted by COVID-19 rules – could expand from 33% to 66% of building capacity in the second phase of reopening. Phase two is an option for “states and regions with no evidence of a rebound and that satisfy the gating criteria for a second time,” according to White House guidelines.
Gov. Hutchinson and Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said moving to phase two primarily benefits restaurants, gyms, and beauty and barbershops that may move from one-third capacity to two-thirds as long as they can maintain social distancing rules and follow other guidelines. New directives for moving to phase two are expected to be posted to the Arkansas Department of Health website no later than the close of business Friday.
In announcing the move to phase two, Gov. Hutchinson said there have been limited phase two openings during phase one, which began May 4. He cited large venues, youth activities, houses of worship and elective surgeries as some areas that moved into some element of phase two.
“The point is we’ve already moved into phase two, we just kept some of the restrictions on some of the individual businesses such as restaurants and gyms with limitations on capacity,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
The governor also said there is no evidence of a correlation between the ongoing rise in cases and the reopening of businesses since May 4.
Moving to phase two comes with additional work and contact tracing in Northwest Arkansas, especially in Benton and Washington counties. As of Tuesday, the two counties combined – Benton (1,090), Washington (1,185) – for 2,275 known COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, or 22.5% of all known cases in the state. Pulaski County, the state’s most populous county, had 1,131 cases.
Additional measures planned for the region include expanding the number of multi-lingual workers in contact tracing, adding more staff to respond to compliance inspections at restaurants and beauty and barber shops, and continuing partnerships with organizations for mass testing events in the area. Also, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a team of up to five bilingual staff to assist with response efforts within the Latino community in the region.
Smith said the state now has more than 200 people involved in contact tracing and is finalizing a contract with a third-party provider that should add another 350 people. He said many of the 350 will be focused on Northwest Arkansas, but the department will move to other areas if necessary.
Jeff Hodges, owner of Springdale-based restaurant/sports bar chain Foghorn’s, said phase two may not mean a lot of new business for his six restaurants – two in Fayetteville and one each in Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Conway.
“Really not much of a difference for us as you still have to maintain the table spacing. But we may be able to add a few more. The bigger issue honestly is the mask issue. Many customers just don’t want to wear one, even if it’s for 10 seconds. So to avoid any confrontation, they will just hit the drive-thru windows,” Hodges said.
When asked about a timeline to move to phase three, Gov. Hutchinson said he is eager to move in that direction but will let the “gradual process” play out and use data from what happens in phase two before considering phase three options.
“We’re anxious to get there. We’re anxious to continue to lift restrictions, let the economy drive itself and let businesses make their own good business judgments and consumers make their decisions as to where to shop or where to dine out,” the governor said, adding later that “this is too serious to not take it a step at a time.”
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 10,368 on Wednesday, up from 10,080 on Tuesday. Of the 288 new cases, 60 were from correctional facilities. Of the total cases, 3,087 are active cases, 199 are in correctional facilities and 138 in nursing homes. The number of deaths rose from 161 to 165. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 181 on Wednesday, up from 173 on Tuesday. There are 49 patients on ventilators, up from 44 on Tuesday. The number of Arkansans recovered is 7,116.
As of Wednesday at 1 p.m., there were 1,988,491 U.S. cases and 112,311 deaths. Globally, there were 7,283,709 cases and 412,745 deaths.
Of the 228 new community cases, 57.9% were in three counties: Pulaski County (51), Washington County (44), and Benton County (37).
Northwest Arkansas Business Journal editor Paul Gatling contributed to this report.