Governor Converts State’s COVID-19 Directives to Guidelines

The state’s mask mandate could be lifted after March 31 if benchmarks are met.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announces the extension of the state's public health emergency Feb. 26, 2021.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is extending the state’s public health emergency declaration through Mar. 31. It was set to expire tomorrow. During a press conference this morning, Hutchinson also extended the state’s mask mandate, which could end after Mar. 31 if certain public health goals are maintained. 

These benchmarks include a positivity rate of 10 percent or less with at least 7,500 testing specimens daily. If testing dips below that threshold, officials would look at hospitalizations, which would need to be fewer than 750 patients statewide. If this criteria isn’t met, the mask mandate will be extended.

“We don’t expect a change in behavior, but we expect people to keep their nose to the grindstone so that we can get through this and back to a more normal life, but it paints a picture as to how we can get there,” Hutchinson said. 

Gov. Hutchinson also announced all other public health directives will become guidelines effective immediately. Businesses are incentivized to follow the guidelines, Hutchinson said, because it gives them business liability protection which is based upon following public health guidelines and making a good faith effort to keep people safe. 

The move will provide more flexibility for businesses, but Hutchinson said it does not change the necessity of quarantines and isolation, directives still in place as part of the emergency order.

“The reasons for this as I have stated — we have 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,” Hutchinson said. “Also, we’ve had increased public education so the public knows exactly what is needed to stop the spread of the virus.”

If there is a dramatic change in how the pandemic is impacting the state, public health guidelines can be reinstated as mandates during the continuation of the public health emergency.  

Today’s updates should not change the behavior of Arkansans who need to continue wearing a mask, washing their hands and watching their distance, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. These steps will help keep the pandemic under control as well as vaccinations.

“It is essential that we all receive the vaccine. That is the only way we’re going to move out of this pandemic,” Romero said. “We need to protect ourselves and protect others with these vaccines.”

Additional information about the state’s response to the pandemic is available on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.  

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.