Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked lawmakers Monday (March 29) to approve his 60-day extension of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, and they agreed but not without lengthy debate.
On a voice vote from the Arkansas Legislative Council, state legislators extended the emergency order until May 30 although several members raised objections. In essence, the legislature voted “no” on a proposal by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, to deny the governor the extension. After members voted down the rejection of his request, they voted to approve five executive orders related to the emergency declaration.
Hutchinson appeared before the panel as part of Act 403, a new law passed this session that requires the governor to seek legislative approval for continuing public emergencies.
Hutchinson said the additional 60 days would allow five executive orders to stay in place until legislation completes its way through the session process. The five orders are:
1) EO-20-05, regarding telehealth;
2) EO-20-14, regarding suspension of in-person witnessing and notarization of legal documents;
3) EO-20-52, regarding access to healthcare resources and immunity for healthcare workers;
4. EO-20-33, regarding the protection of businesses from liability related to COVID-19; and
5. EO-21-06, extending the state income tax filing date to May 17, mirroring a federal tax extension.
The governor said not extending the pandemic emergency would cause these executive orders to end. When legislation is passed and signed into law related to an executive order, Hutchinson said he would end the emergency order.
He also said it “would send the wrong message to the people of Arkansas” and perhaps decrease the chances of greater vaccination rates.
“If the emergency is lifted, many will say a shot is not needed,” he warned. “The emergency itself sends a message.”
He said as of Monday, 13% of the state’s population have been fully vaccinated, while another 25% have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines. Hutchinson said his goal for the next 60 days is to have another 1 million shots administered.
The governor is contemplating opening up vaccines to anyone aged 16 and older. He told legislators he would meet with state Health Department officials this afternoon and he planned to address the subject in his Tuesday weekly COVID-19 press conference.
Hutchinson is also expected to lift a statewide mask mandate on March 31. In late February when the governor changed most health directives for businesses to non-mandatory guidance, he said he planned to halt the mask mandate if coronavirus numbers continued to improve. The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have fallen over the last month, and the death rate has slowed.
“The mask mandate will no longer be in place as of March 31,” he said. “The mask mandate will be lifted two days from now.”