Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday announced new guidance for places for worship as the state moves toward reopening some businesses that were closed due to COVID-19.
Hutchinson said churches are encouraged to utilize online platforms for services, but for those that decide to reopen for in-person services, a new set of updated recommendations are effective beginning today (May 4).
Places of worship should place signs at entry points notifying people not to enter if they’ve recently had a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms or if they’ve been in recent contact with a positive patient. Hand sanitizing stations should also be placed at entrances.
He said people should be at least six feet apart when inside a church, except for family groups.
“Obviously, if you go there with your family you’ll sit together,” he said. “But there should be six feet of distance between other parishioners or other members of the congregation.”
Hutchinson said anyone over 10 years of age should wear a face mask at all times when inside a church. That recommendation would not apply to a worship leader addressing the congregation or for performers or members of a choir. Worship leaders should maintain 12 feet of distance from the congregation.
Other recommendations include moving “meet and greet” services and refreshment offerings outdoors if possible, prohibiting physical contact, canceling classes for youth and childcare, and sanitization of common areas. Hutchinson said churches should eliminate the use of items that are touched by multiple people, and refrain from having people come forward to a common altar rail for communion or blessings.
Hutchinson reiterated that these recommendations are merely guidelines, and that places of worship are exempt from any state-issued directives.
“I’ve talked to people at many churches, and they welcome these guidelines,” he said. “But I think many of them will proceed very cautiously, as they should. They don’t want anybody to get the virus and have adverse health consequences as a result of it.”
Directives for large venues
Hutchinson also issued rules for how larger outdoor venues can begin reopening effective today (May 4).
The first set of directives were for outdoor venues like arenas, sports venues, race tracks, stadiums, amusement parks and fairgrounds.
Those types of facilities should maintain 12 feet of distance between performers and the audience, he said. During Phase 1, there should be no more than 50 performers, players or contestants, and no more than 50 audience members.
There must be six feet of distance between audience members, except for family groups. Also, lines must be marked and monitored for distancing and every other row should be unoccupied, he said.
Just like church guidelines, face masks should be worn by anyone over 10 years of age except for performers, and 12 feet of distance must separate any performers or players from audience members.
Similar rules were announced for larger indoor venues like auditoriums, lecture halls, movie theaters, museums, funeral homes and bowling alleys. Those types of indoor facilities can begin to reopen May 18, he said. Casinos must stay closed, but the governor said they might be able to reopen sometime after the middle of the month.
Hutchinson acknowledged the rules are still very restrictive, and won’t work for every type of event at a venue.
“For those who say that’s not enough, you’ve got to remember where we are,” he said. “We’ve only just met our gating criteria for Phase 1.”
As the state progresses through the next two phases, the restrictions will be lessened, he said.
More money announced for business grants
The state has allocated additional funds for the Arkansas Ready for Business grant program that was first announced last week.
The program was first limited to a total of $15 million, but was quickly exhausted. The new amount available is $55 million, Hutchinson said, and any applications that were submitted last week are still valid.
The application website reopens at 8 a.m. Tuesday, May 5 and will close at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 6. Applications will be accepted at www.ArkansasEDC.com/COVID19.
Just like the previous announcement, all industry sectors are eligible for grants of $1,000 per each full-time employee up to $100,000. Employee head counts can be backdated to March 1 to account for any employees that have been laid off since the pandemic began.
The state’s positive COVID-19 case count reached 3,458 on Monday, which is an increase of 27 since Sunday. Of those, 1,362 are considered active, said Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith.
Of the new cases, 14 were from inside a correctional institution and 13 were from the general community.
“This is the lowest increase we’ve had in over a month,” said Smith.
There are 91 patients currently hospitalized and 16 are on a ventilator. There were five additional deaths overnight, bringing the toll to 81.
Smith asked everyone to pause for a moment in remembrance of those who have died from the virus.
“Although we in Arkansas have managed to have among the fewest deaths per population in the country, 81 deaths is 81 too many,” he said.
In all, 2,016 people have so far recovered from the illness.