The day before his last executive order declaring a public health emergency was to expire, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson essentially lifted most of the state’s COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The last continuation of his declared emergency was made Dec. 29, 2020. It expired Saturday. Emergency declarations due to the COVID-19 pandemic had been extended since March 11, 2020. On Friday Hutchinson announced he was lifting most of the safety restrictions placed on businesses and that he planned to lift the mask mandate in the state on March 31.

“We are on the right path,” Hutchinson said Friday.

He said the mask mandate would become a directive at the end of next month, and that in the meantime, all other safety directives are now considered guidance.

Directives lifted include the capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms and large venues.

Hutchinson said mandates and directives can’t be in place forever, and that these changes will give the state a safe way to move forward with more flexibility for businesses while lifting enforcement of the directives, and fines for not complying.

If the changes result in increased COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, however, Hutchinson said the state can re-engage additional public health measures.

Hutchinson also said he hopes the Legislature will reconsider any plans to refund fines because he said the process was fair, and that refunding fines would undermine what the state has tried to do. He added that if the Legislature passes a bill to refund fines he will not sign it into law.

Hutchinson also pointed out that the impact of the changes on school districts means that the guidance on capacity and social distancing could allow for proms, athletics, graduation, and other extracurricular events.

Hutchinson said the mask mandate will be lifted at the end of March if the state’s positivity rate is below 10 percent with at least 7,500 specimens tested on an average daily basis. If the state tests fewer specimens, the mandate would end if hospitalizations are below 750 patients.

The state has seen a drop in new cases and hospitalizations.

Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas Secretary of Health, said Friday that people should still wear masks, social distance and wash their hands even as restrictions are being lifted. He pointed out that variances of the COVID-19 virus spread more easily, and that just because they haven’t been found in Arkansas so far, it doesn’t mean they are not here. Everyone also should be vaccinated, Romero said.

Hutchinson said that in other states where variances have been detected, their cases of COVID-19 have continued to go down.

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