Governor Ends Statewide Mask Mandate, Expands Vaccine Eligibility

All Arkansans aged 16 and older can now access the COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID Update March 30, 2021
Gov. Asa Hutchinson gives an update on the pandemic Mar. 30, 2021.

The statewide mask mandate in Arkansas has been lifted. Gov. Asa Hutchinson made the announcement during his weekly update on the pandemic this afternoon. 

The mandate went into effect July 20, 2020, but in late February the governor said he would end the directive at the end of March if Arkansas met certain public health criteria. The first benchmark was a positivity rate of less than 10 percent with 7,500 daily test specimens. Testing has dropped below that threshold, so officials looked at hospitalizations, which had to be below 750. There are currently 170 Arkansans in the hospital, an increase of 6 from yesterday, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. 

Although the statewide mandate ends today, businesses like restaurants, hotels and salons will have the option to continue implementing the mask mandate and Arkansans need to honor their decisions, Hutchinson said.

“Please be respectful and mindful that while the mask mandate is lifted, there will be many that continue to wear it, many businesses will continue to require it,” he said. “Be respectful of that and if you don’t want to comply with that, then you have options to go somewhere else.”

The governor said local municipalities can implement their own ordinances, but doesn’t expect many will. This is a change from his comments last week when Hutchinson said he didn’t want cities to have their own rules because the state should move forward together.

Local school districts can choose to continue, modify or eliminate mask policies. As part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, districts are required to publish a plan for continued safe operation and those should be developed in conjunction with the Ready for Learning Committee, Education Secretary Johnny Key said. Plans must be posted by Apr. 15 and receive public comment, which will be used to make any needed modifications for the summer and fall. 

“It is left up to the local districts to make these decisions,” Key said. “They must take some affirmative action by their board and publish that to their patrons.”

Arkansas is having a “successful school year,” Key said, with about 80 percent of students receiving on-site instruction.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are starting to increase around the country and Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said those trends could have an impact in Arkansas.

“Just like we didn’t see our first case for many weeks into the pandemic, these growing numbers of cases outside of the state will eventually get here if we are not careful.”

The removal of the statewide mask mandate is not a statement that Arkansans no longer need to wear a mask, he said.

“You need to continue to mask when you leave your home, you need to continue to avoid large gatherings, you need to follow the recommendations as per the CDC,” Romero said. “Only that way will you be able to keep the numbers low as we’re seeing them now.”

There are 1,717 active cases across the state, according to ADH’s latest report. Romero said officials are discussing metrics they will use moving forward so the state can react as quickly as possible if COVID-19 cases start to increase in Arkansas.

During this afternoon’s update, Gov. Hutchinson also announced all Arkansans 16 years of age and older are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The White House Coronavirus Task Force confirmed today Arkansas will receive an additional 25,000 doses of the vaccine this week. As vaccine production continues to increase, Romero said officials will likely host more mass vaccination clinics. More information about scheduling a vaccination appointment is available at 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.