Governor says Arkansas economy could begin reopening on May 4

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said statewide COVID-19 restrictions could start to be lifted on a limited schedule as early as May 4.

That’s the target date in which the state is currently expected to meet the criteria required for Phase 1 of a reopening plan outlined by White House officials on Thursday.

Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith, who heads the governor’s post-peak response task force, said the group has identified four priorities: Restoring the economy in a timely fashion; protecting the people who are most vulnerable to the virus; maintaining adequate healthcare and capacity; and preventing a resurgence of COVID-19.

The gateway required to enter Phase 1 hasn’t yet been reached, Smith said, but a 14-day decline in positive cases is on the horizon. He said aside from spikes in case counts caused by virus outbreaks in prisons, the state has flattened the curve and that a downward trend could emerge by early May.

Other positive signs include the state’s good current position on hospital capacity, less people going to emergency rooms for coronavirus-like symptoms, and an increase in testing capacity which Hutchinson said has led to the ability to now test everyone who is showing symptoms.

Decline of ER visits

Smith said it’s possible that restrictions in Arkansas could begin to lift at different times, depending on the region.

“We recognize that different parts of our state have been impacted differently, and that we have some areas where we have a higher concentration of cases than others,” said Smith. “At the same time, we realize that even rural counties like Cleburn County can have explosive outbreaks of COVID-19. So we’re going to need to respect those differences, but also realize we need to have a coordinated approach.”

Smith said even when Phase 1 begins, it will be important to continue social distancing.

“We’ll need to keep doing the behavioral changes that allowed us to get to this point in the first place,” he said.

Overall, statewide cases reached 1,620 on Friday, which is 75 more than were reported on Thursday. Of those, 93 patients are hospitalized, 23 are on a ventilator, and 594 have recovered. There were no more deaths, which means the toll still stands at 37.

The number of statewide healthcare workers with COVID-19 increased by five for a total of 228, Smith said. There are currently 116 nursing home patients with the virus, which is a decrease of two since Thursday.

There was a major jump in cases at the Cummins Unit state prison this week after testing was increased, Smith said. Eighty-three more people have contracted the virus at the facility, bringing the total number of cases to 129.

Phase 1 Guidelines

The federal reopening plan lists guidelines for several specific types of employers in its Phase 1 category.

  • Schools and organized youth activities (e.g., daycare, camp) that are currently closed should remain closed.
  • Visits to senior living facilities and hospitals should be prohibited. Those who do interact with residents and patients must adhere to strict protocols regarding hygiene.
  • Large venues (e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.
  • Elective surgeries can resume, as clinically appropriate, on an outpatient basis at facilities that adhere to CMS guidelines.
  • Gyms can open if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.
  • Bars should remain closed.