Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday (Feb. 26) extended a public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic until March 31 and he kept a state-ordered mask mandate intact, but he shifted other directives and set goals for eliminating the mask restrictions over the next 30 days.
Speaking from the governor’s conference room at the state capitol, Hutchinson said he would evaluate ending the public health emergency he declared last March by March 31, 2021. The current order for the emergency was set to expire on Saturday (Feb. 27).
The governor said over the next month he would apply the following evaluation criteria to determine if he would lift a mask mandate. The criteria include:
- A value above 10% combined PCR and antigen positive rate over a 7-day rolling average;
- At least 7,500 specimens tested on average daily would be actionable;
- If testing is below 7,500 daily, then the number of hospitalized Arkansans would serve as an indicator for action; and
- Fewer than 750 patients hospitalized statewide for COVID-19 would be the trigger.
Hutchinson also said in the press conference on Friday that all other Health Department directives would now become guidelines effective immediately. In effect, this move opens up businesses to choose to follow guidelines issued by state health officials as part of their operations. Mandates and penalties would no longer apply. The mask mandate would still be in effect, however.
The governor said the change in public policy would have an impact for schools. He said that local school board policies can use their discretion to keep make mandates and social distancing in place. He also said the guidance on capacity for school events would allow for “proms, athletic events, graduation, and other extracurricular events.” Assurance documents for school districts to file with the Arkansas Athletics Association and the state Health Department are no longer required.
He said quarantine guidance and identification of close contacts would not change.
Hutchinson also said that by March 31, 2021, he would make a decision to keep the public health emergency and the mask mandate in place if statistics showed the situation worsening. He might also reapply certain guidances to directives again, he cautioned.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday urged officials around the country to be wary of easing restrictions designed to contain the virus.
“It’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic. Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” she said. “We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, not now, not when mass vaccination is so very close.”