Citing the availability of coronavirus vaccines, a reduction in the number of people hospitalized with the virus and measures passed by the Legislature this year, among other factors, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday said he would not request an extension of the statewide public emergency he first declared in March 2020.
Hutchinson also announced that state agencies under his control will award $200 bonuses to employees who receive at least one vaccine dose by July 1.
"It is important to understand that we are still in a pandemic," he said.
"The fact that I am ending the declaration of a public health emergency does not change the fact that we still have the covid-19 virus in our community.
"It does not change the fact that our public health system has to continue to deal with it. It doesn't change the fact that we need to continue to get vaccinations out."
The announcements came as the number of people hospitalized in Arkansas with covid-19 rose above 200 for the first time in almost two months, while the state's count of cases rose by 256.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by three, to 5,808.
Under a law that Hutchinson signed in March, any extension of the emergency beyond May 30 would have required approval by the Legislative Council.
The law, Act 403, required such a request to be submitted by Thursday.
Hutchinson said the emergency declaration was no longer needed to keep in place executive orders, such as ones expanding telemedicine and protecting businesses from virus-related lawsuits, because of similar measures that were enacted during this year's legislative session.
The Republican governor in late February converted almost all the state Department of Health's rules aimed at curbing the spread of the virus into nonbinding guidance, and he allowed his statewide mask mandate to expire at the end of March.
Reflecting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidance for people who are fully vaccinated, Hutchinson and other state officials showed up without masks at a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday announcing the governor's decision on the emergency declaration.
"Everyone knows what to do," Hutchinson said. "It is not an emergency, it is a maintenance of effort in terms of our vaccines and managing the pandemic."
He said the requirement to seek legislative approval didn't factor into his decision.
The expiration won't affect the deployment of the Arkansas National Guard to help with vaccine distribution and other tasks, he said.
It will, however, mean the end of increased benefits going to the 114,000 families enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, families had received an increase of at least $95 in their monthly benefit through the program, with the extra benefits this month totaling almost $24 million.
"With the end of the state-declared public health emergency, SNAP emergency supplemental benefits will phase out," state Department of Human Services spokesman Gavin Lesnick said in an email.
"SNAP recipients will continue to receive the maximum SNAP monthly benefit through the end of June."
He said the department is looking into whether any other programs will be affected by the expiration of the emergency declaration, "but this appears to be the most significant change."
He said the emergency declaration's expiration won't affect another program created under the federal law that provides food assistance for families with children who receive free or reduced-price school meals.
Hutchinson said Arkansas is working with federal officials to see if the supplemental SNAP benefits can be extended or, if not, replaced using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden in March.
"I did not want [the supplemental benefits] to stand in the way, with the other resources we have, in ending that emergency," Hutchinson said.
If the state's cases surge back up, "we can always reinstitute the emergency if need be, but I'm hopeful that we won't be there," he said.
After signing Act 403, Hutchinson did win approval in March for one 60-day extension of the public health emergency.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, who sponsored the legislation, said that was needed at the time to give lawmakers time to codify the measures that Hutchinson had taken through emergency executive orders.
"I think it's obvious the legislative branch would have overwhelmingly said no" to another extension, Hammer said.
"I think that evidence shows that we're not in a situation that qualifies to be under emergency status, and we need to resume normalcy," he said.
"I commend his decision to end it."
Michael John Gray, the state's Democratic Party chairman, said he understood Hutchinson's reasons for ending the emergency but worried about the message it would send.
"It's easy to Monday morning quarterback anybody, but my fear with any time the governor does anything in easing or lifting is that it's telling people it's OK, and yet we have such a low vaccination rate statewide," Gray said.
"We're continuing to erode any sense of urgency."
He said he was also concerned how the decision will affect families enrolled in SNAP.
"Just because everyone wants things to be back to normal, it doesn't mean everything is back to normal for everyone," Gray said.
"We've got to take a hard look at everyone who's affected by this and not just make cookie-cutter decisions."
According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, a nonpartisan research group, emergency declarations had already expired or been lifted as of Thursday in Alaska, North Dakota and Oklahoma, and struck down by courts in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Declarations in several other states are set to expire this month and in June.
Hutchinson said he set the bonuses for state employees who receive at least one vaccine dose at $200 so that they would amount to at least $100 after taxes.
He said 25,772 employees work in agencies under his purview. If 70% of them qualify for the bonuses, the payments will total about $3.6 million, he said.
He said the agencies will pay the bonuses after July 1 using money in their budgets, although he hopes to reimburse them using money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
So far, 51.4% of the employees have already received at least one vaccine dose, including 43.7% who have been fully vaccinated, said Ann Purvis, chief of staff at the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.
"We want employees to be vaccinated, and we want them to be safe in the workplace, but just as importantly, our state workers in many instances are providing an environment for the public to come in and do business, and we want the public to know that the workplace, we're doing everything we can to make it safe," Hutchinson said.
He said the state is also spending $6.4 million this year on an education campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated and $2 million on a separate campaign aimed at members of minority groups.
At the news conference, he played one video message promoting the vaccines featuring former Arkansas Razorback and NBA player Sidney Moncrief, and another with restaurant owners from around the state.
Hutchinson said he hopes viewers of the ads have "a positive thought that goes through their mind about vaccines, and saying that if Sidney Moncrief thinks it's good it ought to be good."
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the campaigns include billboards; signs on buses; targeted digital messages; and ads on television, radio, social media platforms and in print publications.
Money for the campaigns is coming from grants from the CDC, department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said.
Hutchinson said state officials have also discussed other ideas, such as drawings for cash prizes that have been announced in other states, for encouraging people to get vaccinated.
"We have some very strict guidelines in reference to things like lotteries that are a little bit more challenging than perhaps in other states, but we would like to have some programs that people will get excited about that will draw attention to the need," he said.
Shots for children age 12-15, who were authorized last week to receive the Pfizer vaccine, appeared to be bolstering Arkansas' vaccination effort Thursday.
Of the 11,437 doses that had been administered since the previous day, 6,500 went to children in the new age group, state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said.
It was the second day in a row that the increase in shots that had been given, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was larger than the one a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered per day over a rolling seven-day period rose to almost 8,900.
That was still below the average of more than 9,230 a day that were administered during the week ending May 13, however, and down from a peak of more than 23,000 doses a day in early April.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Thursday by 5,863, to 1,148,175, representing about 38% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 4,478, to 894,806, or about 29.7% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas fell from No. 44 to No. 45 in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose.
It continued to rank 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage of its residents who had been fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, despite the CDC's guidance issued last week that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing, the University of Central Arkansas in Conway said Thursday that its mask requirement will stay in place until Act 1002, a state law banning such mandates, takes effect in July.
"In fairness to all the students that registered for summer classes under the assumption of a face covering requirement, we will continue our original plan to require face coverings in summer 2021 classes through the July 29, 2021, implementation date of the state law eliminating face covering requirements by any public entity in Arkansas," Houston Davis, president of UCA, said Thursday in a written message addressed to students, and faculty and staff members.
A message addressed to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus community Wednesday gave a slightly different date but said the university "continues to require face masks on campus while indoors, with limited exceptions" and that this will continue until July 28.
Colleges and universities in the state have taken different approaches to mask mandates in response to the new CDC guidance and Act 1002, which does not apply to private entities.
"We're in a mode where, we're not going to be the mask police anymore," Phillip Wilson, chancellor for the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain, a two-year college with its main campus in Mena, said in a phone interview Thursday.
Wilson announced to the campus in a written message Monday that its mask mandate would no longer be in effect, citing the CDC guidance.
"The overall enforcement of it -- at this point, it's very, very difficult," Wilson said Thursday of the previous mask mandate.
In his campus message, he said face coverings are "strongly encouraged if you are not vaccinated" and that keeping 3 feet of social distancing is also encouraged.
He urged the campus to "remain committed to taking care of yourself AND your neighbor."
The UALR message made no distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals.
Davis, however, described loosened requirements for fully vaccinated UCA students and employees, who he said are no longer required to wear face coverings outside of classrooms and labs. Those who are not fully vaccinated are to continue wearing face coverings in indoor common areas, Davis said.
He also warned against asking someone's vaccination status, however.
"It is important to note that no person (other than our Student Health Clinic staff) can ask another if they are or are not fully vaccinated," Davis said in his message to campus.
Fredricka Sharkey, a spokeswoman for UCA, when asked about the reasoning behind the statement by Davis, responded in an email: "Per recent state legislation, we cannot institute a vaccine passport system. No one can ask for verification of another person's vaccination status."
Sharkey said it's expected that individuals at UCA "follow an honor system regarding their masking decisions."
The law prohibiting vaccination passports. Act 1030 defines a vaccination passport as "documentation that an individual has been vaccinated against coronavirus." The law takes effect in late July and states that a vaccination passport "shall not be a condition for entry, travel, education, or services."
Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia dropped its campus mask mandate on May 1 with a few exceptions, such as science labs, an official has said.
Arkansas State University in Jonesboro is keeping its mask mandate for now, though the university's governing board will consider possible changes in a June meeting, a spokesman has said.
ASU System spokesman Jeff Hankins said the university has no guidelines or protocols for questioning individuals about whether they are vaccinated against covid-19.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville continues to require face coverings in buildings with limited exceptions, its website said Thursday.
Spokesman Mark Rushing said last week that the state's largest university is assessing the new CDC recommendations.
According to guidance that he said has been provided to "human resources leaders across campus," supervisors can privately ask workers individually if they have been vaccinated if "the information is functionally required in order to plan activities in the unit."
Co-workers should avoid asking one another their vaccination status "especially in group meeting settings," the guidance states.
"We have not yet furnished written guidance to campus regarding vaccination status inquiries related to students," Rushing said in an email.
According to Health Department reports, the number of active cases among students and employees at colleges and universities fell by 15, to 30, from Monday to Thursday.
At public elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases fell by 24, to 255.
The statewide increase in new covid-19 cases Thursday was the third in a row that was bigger than the one a week earlier.
After not increasing a day earlier, the number of coronavirus patients in the state's hospitals rose Thursday by 15, to 203, its highest level since March 20.
The number of virus patients who were on ventilators, however, fell by three to 32.
"It could be just increased social interaction now that we don't have a mask mandate in place, and people are not taking those same measures of wearing face masks and social distancing and are not vaccinated," Dillaha said of the increase in cases and hospitalizations.
Although the CDC said people who have not been fully vaccinated still need to wear masks and practice social distancing, Dillaha said some unvaccinated people are likely not following the agency's guidance.
"I think it's totally appropriate for people who are fully vaccinated to not wear masks," Dillaha said. "The people who are not fully vaccinated and don't wear masks put themselves at risk and other people at risk."
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Thursday to 204, topping 200 for the first time since the week ending May 10.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases that were considered active rose by 54, to 2,053.
That was the first time since Sunday that the number had been above 2,000.
The cases that were added to the state's tallies included 183 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 73 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 339,662.
That comprised 265,495 confirmed cases and 74,167 probable ones.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 34, followed by Benton and Garland counties, which each had 32, and White County, which had 15.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by three.
The state's death toll rose by two, to 4,609, among confirmed cases and by one, to 1,199, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by one, to 2,085.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 15, to 16,179.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by three, to 1,651.