No mask mandates with Fort Smith area cities, UAFS will continue mandate

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,690 views 

A vaccine clinic was held Thursday (April 1) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. (photo courtesy of UAFS)

City officials in the Fort Smith metro are not calling for municipal mask mandates but are encouraging citizens to wear face masks and follow other health care guidelines designed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Hutchinson announced Tuesday (March 30) he was lifting the statewide mask. The decision to lift the mask mandate came after the governor, in consultation with Arkansas Secretary of Health D. Jose Romero, determined that Arkansas has met the guidelines set Feb. 26. Businesses still have the right to require customers to wear masks, and the governor asked that citizens respect these requirements.

Shari Cooper, public relations and communications manager for the city of Fort Smith, said the city will not have a mask mandate but will follow the directives and guidance of the state.

“We are continuing to encourage people to stay diligent and maintain safety protocols such as washing their hands, social distancing, and mask wearing in addition to getting vaccinated,” Cooper said.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken has said the city will keep certain city-wide restrictions intact for a few more weeks. The city’s community facilities and public restrooms will be closed to the public until April 23.

“Additionally, event planners seeking to obtain permits for large, outdoor gatherings will need to include plans that reflect the Arkansas Department of Health’s guidance for large gatherings,” Cooper said. “Some of that guidance would include mandatory face coverings, seating restrictions and hand sanitizer stations at the event.”

After April 24, Public restrooms and community facilities will open back to the public. After that, event planners will not need to submit the ADH plans with their event permits, Cooper said.

Greenwood Mayor Doug Kinslow said Greenwood also will follow state health directives.

“However we encourage residents to continue to respect businesses that require masks and individuals who choose to do so,” Kinslow said.

Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst said he has instructed city employees to continue to wear masks when appropriate physical distancing cannot be achieved and the city is encouraging the public to wear masks.

“I’ve been coordinating with (Crawford County) Judge (Dennis) Gilstrap to make sure we are consistent in the way we move forward in our community. Therefore, I have set a date of April 26 to re-open public buildings fully to the public. This will be two weeks after government employees can receive their second dose of the vaccine,” Hurst said.

The Health Policy Board of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement on Thursday (April 1) called on community leaders to take the lead in adopting strategies to fight COVID-19, including mask mandates.

“The ACHI Health Policy Board calls on leaders across the state ― business owners, school board members, faith leaders, and local elected officials ― to adopt strategies that maintain Arkansas Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the board said in a released statement.

Specifically, it noted that termination of the state mask mandate should be replaced by local decisions to continue important efforts including mask mandates.

“Arkansas’s progress in containment and the extension of vaccine eligibility to all Arkansans over age 16 are critically important. But the presence of variants in the state that are more contagious and potentially more lethal, the observation of increases in both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in other regions of the U.S., and the growing public fatigue with COVID-19’s impact call for renewed commitments. The lifting of the mask mandate is not an all-clear signal to abandon safeguards in our communities,” ACHI noted in a statement.

Schools in Fort Smith are making certain they do not abandon safeguards. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will continue its “Protecting the Pride” safety protocols, including requiring face-coverings and social distancing in all campus buildings and classrooms, which were set before the start of the fall semester for this past school year, until the end of the spring semester, UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley said.

“Along with our optimism toward an end to this pandemic, we must remain vigilant in keeping our campus safe until that hope becomes reality. The truth is, for over a year now, the policies UAFS put in place to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe have been working,” Riley said.

Fort Smith Public Schools also will continue all staff and student safety standards at least through the end of the school year, Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan told the FSPS school board March 29. The safety protocols include directions on arriving at schools, visitors to the schools, food deliveries to the school, personal protective equipment, plastic barriers, masks and social distancing, Mahan said.

Hutchinson also extended the Arkansas COVID-19 vaccine plan to include all Arkansans over the age of 16. UAFS held an all-student vaccination clinic Thursday (April 1) at the Stubblefield Center. The clinic vaccinated 448 at the clinic. Those vaccinated were predominantly students though local alumni was emailed about the clinic as well, said Rachel Rodemann Putman, associate director for strategic communications.

“With three COVID-19 vaccines approved by the FDA for emergency use, continued downward trends in both new COVID cases and COVID hospitalizations in the state, and single-digit numbers of cases on our campus, I am thrilled to announce that we will open campus to fully in-person operations this fall and offer a greater number of face-to-face classes this summer,” Riley said.

UAFS announced in February it would have in-person commencement ceremonies in May. Ceremonies will be conducted over four days to honor graduates from the current semester and those from spring, summer, and fall of 2020 who were unable to participate in a traditional ceremony. Each ceremony will be no more than one hour long, and all will be live-streamed on the UAFS YouTube channel. Strict guidelines will be enforced to ensure the safety and well-being of all participants. Each ceremony will be limited to 140 graduates, who will check in 30 minutes before the ceremony’s start time and proceed to their seat on the arena floor. There will not be a traditional processional.

FSPS also will have “slightly modified graduation ceremonies” for graduations at Northside and Southside high schools. Southside High School graduation ceremonies will be at 7 p.m. May 20 at the Jim Rowland Stadium. Northside High School Graduation ceremonies will be at 7 p.m. May 21 at Mayo-Thompson Stadium.