In a Friday morning press conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson charted the state’s path forward in the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of three announcements.
Hutchinson is extending the public health emergency, which is set to expire on Saturday, Feb. 28. The emergency will be extended for an additional 30 days, through Wednesday, March 31.
As a result of the public health emergency extension, multiple executive orders issued throughout the pandemic will be continued. Hutchinson pointed out that Medicaid reimbursements for telehealth and liability protections for businesses are among those executive orders. While the legislature is in the process of placing some of these orders into law, Hutchinson noted that it has not been accomplished yet.
“The reason that we are making this announcement today on the continuation of the emergency is that it is necessary because we need to have these items still in place but we have also made progress,” he said.
“Nothing is guaranteed for the future but while we’re still in an emergency, we have made progress.”
During the continued public health emergency, the state’s mask mandate will continue but it could end if certain goals are met. According to Hutchinson, if the state has a combined PCR and antigen test positivity rate of 10 percent or less on a seven-day rolling average with at least 7,500 individuals tested daily on average, the mask mandate would be lifted. If the testing is below the 7,500 mark, state officials can use the number of hospitalized patients as a trigger to remove the mask mandate. If fewer than 750 patients are hospitalized statewide for COVID-19, the mask mandate can be lifted.
If state officials lift the mask mandate, mask wearing would become a guideline.
“It will stay in place through March 31 but we have an opportunity to see where our progress is, and if we meet these benchmarks, then the mask mandate will be lifted on March 31,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson is also immediately converting all other public health directives into guidance. While directives are mandates based on scientific data that have a potential penalty, a guidance is a “strong recommendation based on medical advice,” according to a definition provided by Hutchinson. “We are moving from directives to guidance,” he said.
This change will impact a range of businesses, including restaurants, gyms, indoor venues and outdoor venues. Hutchinson noted that these businesses will still be subject to public health measures that have been in place in recent months but these measures will no longer be directives.
“The reasons for this, as I have stated, we’ve made progress in the pandemic, businesses have adjusted and made changes to their business model in the interest of public health, and we’ve seen a steady decline in cases. Also, we’ve had increased public education so the public needs exactly what is needed to stop the spread of the virus. They know where they can go safely, where they can’t go safely and they can make those judgements,” he said.
“The public needs to understand how we move out of this pandemic and into a more normal life. We are outlining how we get there. We don’t get there immediately, but we get there through following guidelines, we get there through seeing the cases go down and continuing to be careful about our behavior.”
Local schools will be impacted by Hutchinson’s announcements. Capacity and social distancing guidance, Hutchinson said, will allow schools to hold events such as proms, athletic events and graduations.
Schools will be allowed to continue mask mandates and social distancing requirements at the discretion of local school boards. However, quarantine guidance will not be changed and identification of close contacts will be continued.
In response to reporters’ questions, Hutchinson said the COVID-19 vaccination schedule would not be changed at the moment. The state recently changed the Phase 1B eligibility to allow individuals 65 and older to obtain a vaccine. Hutchinson said that he could not comment on any changes or updates to the schedule. “Perhaps next week we can give a better estimation of that,” he said.