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Governor Lifts COVID-19 Mandates on Businesses, Extends Health Emergency

Gov. Asa Hutchinson held another coronavirus response briefing this morning to make three announcements. The first was that he is extending the public health emergency declaration for another 30 days until March 31. The continuation of the declaration, Hutchinson said, allows for continued Medicaid reimbursements for telehealth, business liability protections and remote learning options for school districts. He also announced that because of the progress the state has made on decreasing cases and increasing vaccinations, the mask mandate will also end on March 31 if the state meets certain goals before that time. Hutchinson's third announcement had to do with state directives for businesses and events. Effective immediately, all mandates, which included enforcement and penalties, have been converted to guidelines. Hutchinson said lifting the restrictions doesn't mean a change in behaviors like mask wearing and social distancing since businesses have to follow the guidelines to maintain liability protections. It also doesn't change the rules for quarantining as those mandates are part of the public health emergency declaration. As far as what the announcement means for school districts, Hutchinson said policies on mask wearing and social distancing remain in the hands of local school boards, most of which adopted those measures before the start of the school year. Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said the state has a robust system in place to monitor any rise in cases and hospitalizations and the Health Department is keeping an eye out for any variants of COVID-19 in the state. Romero also stressed that people should continue to get vaccinated for coronavirus because it's still the only way to move past the pandemic. However, if people's behaviors lead to more cases and hospitalizations, Hutchinson said he's prepared to reinstate mandated public health measures. To watch the full briefing, click here.

Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
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