Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s coronavirus briefing today included a blessing for churches to resume in-person gatherings, along with reopening clearance for large outdoor venues effective today, but with limits on crowds.
The governor also announced a lifting of total closure of indoor facilities, such as bowling alleys, on May 18. Again with restrictions. Casinos are not included. Separate directives are in the works for casinos, but both the governor and Health Director Nate Smith said their restrictions may be eased about the same time as those for the other indoor facilities.
Churches were never prohibited from meeting in person because the governor didn’t want to issue orders to religious institutions. But guidelines discouraged it.
The new guidance, effective today, says that online worship platforms are still encouraged. But the guidance opens the door to in-person attendance, with six-foot distancing suggested except for family groups, and other guidance.
He said he believed most would proceed cautiously.
He opened the door to activities in outdoor large venues, again with restrictions, and set a target date for indoor facilities. Health Director Nate Smith said it was important to move gradually.
Smith was asked about the ability to police all the newly opened venues. He said it would be in their interest to follow guidelines to avoid flareups of the virus.
The governor said a decision would come later on opening the door to summer team activities, such as baseball.
The daily case count
A small increase of 27 new cases, to 3,458. Hospitalizations were down 7 from 98 Sunday to 91. Deaths increased by five, to 81. Over the weekend, five deaths were reported among Cummins inmates.
The small number of positive cases was found among more than 1,600 tests — “very good news,” the governor said. Fourteen of them were prison cases. The 13 new “community” cases were the lowest in more than a month.
Corrections Director Dexter Payne said steps had been taken at all units to try to separate inmates by six feet, even in barracks. He said all inmates were being fed as normal, but there were delays because units are locked down and meal trays must be delivered to all prisoners. He described as minor disturbances some trash can fires and broken windows Saturday at Cummins and they were quelled quickly.
Health Director Nate Smith said the Cummins inmate COVID-19 case count is at 873 and 122 at the Forrest City federal prison.
Ready for Business grant program
The governor announced what we reported this morning, that the legislature had agreed to add $40 million to a $15 million fund for grants to businesses to pay reopening costs and costs of adapting to social distancing rules. He didn’t mention the legislature cut the amount he’d wanted by $45 million and put new restrictions on it.
The money can be applied for online Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
He lauded the legislature for “working together” to put this fund together. Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, who’d asked for the additional $85 million, also praised the legislature for seeing the need for more money. The governor said the legislature had indicated it would do more if the new amount is oversubscribed. More information is available here.
Pandemic unemployment assistance
He said the computer system for handling the new benefits for independent contractors had been under testing all weekend. He said he anticipated a news release later this afternoon, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that meant the program was about to get underway. Claims are already being paid in every state bordering Arkansas.
College in the fall
The governor said he was “excited” by news that the University of Arkansas was planning for classes and football in the fall.