The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Arkansas increased Friday to 3,321 and the number of deaths related to the virus increased to 64, as state officials continue lifting some of the restrictions put in place due to the pandemic.

After easing restrictions on state parks, restaurants, and fitness centers earlier this week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said hair and nail salons, barbershops, tattoo shops, massage parlors and medical spas, will be allowed to reopen Wednesday, May 6, subject to certain guidelines set by the Arkansas Department of Health.

Small facilities will be limited to 10 clients at a time. In larger facilities, or no more than 30 percent of the workspace stations may be operational at one time. Clients must be spaced at least six feet apart and staff should schedule appointments allowing adequate time to properly clean and disinfect between clients.

Clients are required to have an appointment and be screened for potential coronavirus-related symptoms. They should wait for their appointment outside or in their car. Staff must wear facemasks. Clients must wear a facemask as services permit. “Obviously, if you are getting a facial, you take your mask off,” Hutchinson said.

The complete guidelines for reopening barber shops, body art establishments, cosmetology establishments, massage therapy clinics and spas, and medical spas are HERE.

Gyms & Fitness Centers

In his Thursday news briefing, Hutchinson said gyms, fitness centers and indoor athletic facilities may reopen on May 4 with limitations and social distancing requirements developed by the Arkansas Department of Health.

In addition to screening staff and patrons for symptoms and recent contact with coronavirus patients, both staff and patrons must wear face masks when they are not exercising and must maintain a 12-foot distance from others while working out and during training sessions and classes.

Hutchinson said the 12-foot distancing requirement is put in place due to greater exhalation while exercising.

“That’s important because as you are exercising you are exhaling to a greater extent and so the typical breathing goes beyond 6 feet and so we want to have a little bit more protective measures there,” he said.

Youth and team sports will not yet be allowed.

“We will have to take another look at team and youth sports in mid to late May,” Hutchinson said. “Right now we have a directive that prohibits those through May 31, but we want to give some advance notice for everyone so they can plan the future.”

Hutchinson emphasized that social restrictions remain in place even though Arkansas is beginning to reopen parks and certain business activity.

The complete guidelines for gyms and fitness centers are HERE.

Restaurants

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced the first phase of a plan allowing restaurants to reopen for dine-in service beginning on May 11. The first phase limits the number of diners to one-third of the restaurant’s capacity with physical distancing between customers and tables. Reservations are encouraged.

Restaurants may serve alcohol with meals, but the restaurant’s bars and entertainment areas will remain closed.

Additionally, restaurant employees will be screened daily for conronavirus symptoms and will be required to wear face masks and gloves. Diners will wear facemasks until after they order.

“I recognize that 33 percent is not enough for some restaurants to really cover the overhead…, but that’s where we need to start at this particular time,” Hutchinson said. “As we keep the trend line successful, we can go into Phase II that lifts the occupancy rate to 67 percent. An then, as we are successful, we can go to full occupancy but you have to start somewhere.”

Steuart Walton, chairman of the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, said some economic activities will take longer than others to normalize. This will be seen with the businesses that reopen whether it is restaurants, salons, or gyms.

While the complexity of reopening a state’s economy is concerning, Walton sees reason for optimism.

“I think there is also reason for optimism too, because, as things are probably not going back to exactly the way they were in January, for example, with that comes some concern but also opportunity,” Walton said. “Arkansans have an independent streak unlike just about any other state and it doesn’t matter if you’re from the north part of the state, the south part of the state, or the central part of the state. It’s a trait that runs through our state and our culture and I think it breeds some of that entrepreneurial spirit that the state has in spades, in my view. So, I think there will be opportunities for businesses in the normalization process.”

Grant

The governor also announced “Arkansas Ready for Business,” a $15 million grant program to assist businesses through the restart phase and to build consumer confidence. Businesses may apply for a grant of $1,000 per full-time employee, up to $100,000, to help with expenses related to reopening, such as personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and cleaning services, and other one-time expenses related to reopening or resuming normal operations.

Hutchinson said the grant program is subject to approval by the CARES Act steering group and members of the Legislative Council. Funding for the grant program would come from the state’s portion of funding through the federal federal CARES Act.

On Thursday, the day after Hutchinson announced the “Arkansas Ready for Business” grant program, a reporter questioned Hutchinson, saying that a couple of legislators, including a couple Hutchinson’s friends, raised concerns about the roll-out of the program. “Some of them are suggesting that people were tipped off in advance and the program showed some favortism,” the reporter said.

Hutchinson acknowledged the program was rolled out prematurely without legislative approval, but was taken offline less than an hour later and there was no favoritism shown.

“It was a typical roll-out because when you present a new grant program you want to make sure as many stakeholders as possible are aware of that and so those steps were taken,” Hutchinson said. “So it was not an issue of favortism, it was a matter of this is how you get information out about a new small business grant program.”

Hutchinson took responsibility of the premature placement of the grant program on the Arkansas Ready for Business website. He said it was the result of people working remotely and quickly and a failure of clear communication.

Within an hour of the grant program being placed on the Arkansas Ready for Business website, the state had more than 2,300 grant funding applications totaling more than $36 million, Hutchinson said, adding that 92 percent of those grant applications were from businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

“We were educated by that response and now what we have to do is work with the Legislature to see if we are going to increase the funding for this,” Hutchinson said.

The program will not be placed back online until it is approved by the Legislature and it is known how much money will be available.

Parks

Hutchinson on Tuesday announced a plan calling for the gradual reopening of state parks with social distancing measures enforced by park personnel. The parks have been restricted to day-use only since April 3.

Beginning Friday, May 1, Arkansans will be allowed to camp overnight in self-contained recreational vehicles. The campground bath houses will not yet reopen.

In two weeks, on May 15, the state plans to reopen cabins, lodges and other overnight rental facilities to Arkansas travelers. Reservations will be available only on Fridays through Mondays, allowing time to clean and sanitize between each rental. Limited food services and other amenities will also be available.

Some high-use trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, Devil’s Den State Park, and Petit Jean State Park will remain closed.

“If these measures become problematic or dangerous in some way, within our State parks, for staff or for visitors we will certainly re-examine these measures and make new recommendations to the governor,” said Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Hurst said the plan was approved by Dr. Nate Smith, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, prior to Hutchinson’s final approval.

Reopening Guidelines

At his daily news briefing on Monday, Hutchinson reviewed the guidelines for “Opening Up America Again”, President Trump’s three-phase approach to begin relaxing some of the social distancing measures imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the guidelines, states should satisfy criteria in three categories before starting its phased reopening. The three categories are symptoms, cases, and hospitals.

There must be a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period and a downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period.

Hutchinson, pointing to graphs at his news briefing on Monday, said there is a downward trajectory of the percentage of daily emergency room visits for covid-like symptoms and a downward trajectory of weekly out-patient visits for influenza-like illness in Arkansas.

“We’re very pleased with those results and where we are in the state in regards to that downward trend,” Hutchinson said.

The next category is cases. There must be also be a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests).

Excluding an outbreak of the virus at Cummins Prison in Lincoln County where more 860 inmates and 51 staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus, Arkansas is on a downward trajectory, according to Hutchinson.

“Of course we had a peak that was because of the outbreak at Cummins that is being managed, but you see the downward trend within the last 24 hours,” Hutchinson said, pointing to a graph.

In terms of testing, Hutchinson said the state had a 2-day surge. He set a testing goal increasing the number of daily tests from 1,000 per day to 1,500. “We met our goal on that,” he said. “We exceeded the 1,500 and are very pleased with it.”

The final category is hospitals. Hospitals must treat all patients without crisis care and a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing.

Hutchinson said Arkansas has more than adequate hospital facilities and ventilators to treat all patients without having a crisis environment. He said the state has also had a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers for some time.

“In terms of the gating criteria that was given by the White House, ‘it’s looking positive in terms of the trends, the trajectory here in the state of Arkansas,” Hutchinson said.

Processing Plants

Meanwhile Tyson officials are predicting food-supply chain shortages. Arkansas has more that 60 food-processing plants.

“Arkansas is critical in not just our own food chain, but the nation and the world’s food chain,” Hutchinson said. “So the success and health of those workers in the processing plants are very critical.”

About a dozen processing plants in the U.S. closed after employees contracted the virus but those plants are not located in Arkansas. While Hutchinson said he doesn’t expect any meat-processing plant closures to in the state, Dr. Nate Smith, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, said Arkansas has a plan if a plant were to have a cluster of coronavirus cases.

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