Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Friday he is extending the public health emergency declaration an additional 30 days. The declaration includes a directive that the mask mandate will continue, but it will end on March 31 if certain public health goals are maintained.

“If we can achieve a positivity rate of 10 percent or less, both PCR and antigen positivity rate, with at least 7,500 specimens on average, daily, then on March 31 we can move away from the mask mandate and it would become simply a guideline,” Hutchinson said.

“I waited to evaluate where we are on the cases before making a decision on whether this current State of Emergency should be extended; obviously in consultation with our Secretary of Health,” Hutchinson said at a news conference Friday. “So, today I am extending our public health emergency another 30 days, until March 31.”

Though Arkansas remains in a state of emergency, the state is making progress, according to Hutchinson.

In addition to the reduced number of cases each day, the state is making progress on vaccinations, the number hospitalizations is down, the positivity rate is below 10 percent and compliance with public health guidelines is at a all time high, according to Hutchinson.

Hutchinson also announced that all other public health directives that have been issued are now guidelines. He then presented a slide explaining the difference in a directive and a guidance:

A Directive, based on scientific data and a rational basis, is a mandate like an order with a potential penalty after due process.

A Guidance, based on scientific data, is a strong recommendation based on medical advice.

“So, we are moving from directives to guidance,” Hutchinson said. “The examples of where this would make a difference would be restaurants, gyms, salons, indoor venues and outdoor venues will be subject to the same guidance that we’ve had in the form of directives, but it will be guidance.”

The reason for the change from directives to guidelines is the result of progress the state has made, according to Hutchinson.

“We’ve made progress in the pandemic. Businesses have adjusted and made changes in their business model in the interest of public health, and we’ve seen a steady decline in cases,” he said. “Also, we’ve had increased public education, so the public knows 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 judgments.”

Hutchinson said changing the directives to guidelines does not mean there will be a change in behavior. For example, state government will continue to tell departments to follow social distancing guidelines and wear a mask when they cannot social distance.

He said businesses will be incentivized to follow the guidelines because doing so gives them business liability protection. The business liability protection is based upon following public health guidelines and making a good faith effort to make sure their employees and customers are safe.

The change from directives to guidelines does not include directives relating to quarantine and isolation. “Those directives are still in place and are part of the emergency order and part of the essential work of the Department of Health,” Hutchinson said.