Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Arkansas will begin the second phase of easing coronavirus restrictions on Monday, June 15.
The governor had previously said it was possible that restrictions could be further lifted at different times, depending on the region. However, he said Wednesday that the entire state will move into Phase 2 as a whole.
“Americans are on the move,” said Hutchinson. “They can’t be tied down and they can’t be restrained.”
Hutchinson said he believes people are making smart decisions, but they are voluntarily made in the best interest of their health.
“While they don’t want the government telling them what to do, they do understand the risk and they stay at home when need be,” he said.
For the most part, Phase 2 allows more customers in restricted businesses. For example, restaurants can move from 33% to 66% of their building capacity.
The state first began to reopen to non-essential businesses on May 4. At the time of that decision, coronavirus cases had peaked and began to fall, but swelled again in late May. A further rise continued through the first week of June in which the number of positive cases increased by 31% in just seven days.
Hutchinson said the jump in cases was not tied to the reopening of businesses, but instead to an increase in testing capacity.
“Our data in Arkansas tells us that the growth rate in cases is not the result of lifting restrictions,” he said. “There is no evidence of a correlation.”
The governor said restaurants, gyms, barber shops and salons are taking the proper precautions, and that when questioned, very few patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 admitted to visiting any of the non-essential establishments.
Testing has been ramped up again this month.
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said over 4,000 people have been tested each day since June 2, putting the state ahead of its target to conduct 120,000 tests in June. That number is double what officials had targeted in May when they hoped for 60,000 tests – a goal that was surpassed by nearly 21,000.
Still, Hutchinson said, the state is not past the pandemic and people must continue to take precautions.
“We are not out of the woods,” said Hutchinson. “We are still in the heart of the woods when it comes to this healthcare emergency.” In fact, he said the emergency order set to expire in mid-June will continue for an additional 45 days.
Hutchinson said even though some regions are showing spikes in case counts, the state is best served by moving forward together instead of entering Phase 2 on separate timelines.
He outlined a plan for additional support in Northwest Arkansas where a surge in cases has been ongoing since late May.
The state, he said, will increase testing and dedicate contact tracing efforts across the region. Staffing will also be increased in Northwest Arkansas to conduct additional compliance inspections and respond to complaints about businesses that are not following guidelines.
Hutchinson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send a team of bilingual staff to Northwest Arkansas to investigate and assist with outreach to the Latinx community. Officials earlier this week said the Latinx community accounts for nearly 19% of those testing positive for COVID-19, and that some of that spread was among poultry workers.
Other measures, such as increased messaging through social media, will also be focused in Northwest Arkansas.
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 10,368 on Wednesday, which is an increase of 288 since Tuesday. Of those, 60 were from correctional facilities.
Hospitalizations are up eight to 181, and there were four new deaths, bringing the toll to 165.
The active case count is currently at 3,087, meaning 7,116 patients have so far recovered from the illness.