LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Cities won’t be able to enforce their own mask mandates to curb the coronavirus when Arkansas ends its requirement as soon as next week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday.
Hutchinson told reporters he expected Arkansas’ requirement to end March 31, saying the state has so far met the criteria for positive tests and hospitalizations that he set for the mandate’s end. Hutchinson set the criteria when he lifted most of the state’s virus restrictions last month.
The Republican governor said officials are still working on guidance for cities, employers and schools systems as it prepares to lift the mandate. Hutchinson said school districts will likely have a local option and businesses can have their own requirements, but cities couldn’t have that option .
“We’re going to go on this together,” Hutchinson said at his weekly virus briefing. “One statewide standard is what I expect to announce next week.”
Before Hutchinson signed the state’s mask mandate last year, he had allowed cities to enforce mask ordinances that did not include penalties for not complying.
Arkansas’ virus cases and hospitalizations continued to drop on Tuesday. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped by 11 to 173. Its active virus cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have died or recovered, dropped by 69 to 2,263.
Overall, the state’s virus cases rose by 239 to 328,946 total since the pandemic began. The state reported three new COVID-19 deaths, bringing its total to 5,547.
Hutchinson said he hoped to further expand the vaccine’s eligibility, but said there are still backlogs of people eligible in parts of the state, including urban areas and its northwest region. More than 1 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We want to get a greater percent of those that are 1C done before we move on, but stay tuned,” Hutchinson said. “I expect we’ll be able to move that direction in the near future.”
Hutchinson last week expanded the vaccine eligibility to an additional 1 million people, including food servers. Others in the state eligible for the vaccine include those at least 65 years old, teachers, health care workers and law enforcement.
An attempt to override Hutchinson‘s veto of legislation that would have required the state to refund fines imposed on businesses for violating virus safety rules also failed on Tuesday.
The House voted 39-40 in favor of the override, falling short of the 51 votes it needed. The Senate earlier voted 19-13 in favor of overriding Hutchinson‘s veto.
Hutchinson on Monday vetoed the bill, saying it violated the separation of powers and would have sent the wrong message to businesses that complied with safety rules. The bill would have required the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control division to refund about $38,000 to bars and restaurants.
Supporters of the measure have argued the fines were unfair to smaller businesses and have argued the Legislature should have had more say in the virus rules. Hutchinson on Monday also signed into law a measure expanding the Legislature’s power over emergency declarations and directives.
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