Arkansas to Begin Lifting Restaurant Restrictions on May 11

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday said he would lift the COVID-19 restriction on dine-in service at Arkansas restaurants on May 11, and he announced a new $15 million “Arkansas Ready For Business” grant program to help businesses as they gradually return to operations.

Each business could receive $1,000 per employee, and up to $100,000 total. They could spend that money on personal protective equipment for employees, hand sanitizer stations, cleaning supplies and services and other one-time expenses related to reopening or resuming normal operations.

The governor said the grant program is subject to legislative approval and the approval of his 15-member steering committee that is directing how the state spends the federal funds it received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Lifting the dine-in service ban is the first phase of a three-phase plan, Hutchinson said.

“I say Phase I because Phase I is limited to a third, or 33%, of the occupancy rate of the restaurant,” he said. 

The governor said he knows a 33% occupancy is not enough for some restaurants to cover the overhead. But he said that’s where they needed to start.

If coronavirus cases remain under the expected trend, the allowed occupancy rate will be lifted to 67% in Phase II. Phase III will be a return to pre-pandemic operations.

“Success brings success, so if we can have this limited opening of dine-in services for restaurants on May 11 and we’re successful in making sure we follow the guidelines and we protect safety, then we’re going to be able to go on to more normal operations,” Hutchinson said.

Aside from the limited occupancy, restaurants will be required or encouraged to do the following:

  • Physically distance patrons and tables from each other;
  • Take reservations;
  • Have their staff and patrons wear face coverings during the ordering process;
  • Have their staff wear gloves and screen them daily;
  • Not serve groups of 10 people or more;
  • Offer pre-ordering when possible;
  • Host a senior hour;
  • Ban self service;
  • Not allow congregation in their bars areas;
  • Not have live entertainment; and
  • Sanitize tables between patrons.

A state directive on how restaurants can offer limited dine-in service will be issued late Wednesday afternoon, the governor said. Details about the “Arkansas Ready For Business” program would be posted at ArkansasEDC.com this afternoon, Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said.

Update, April 30: The “Ready for Business” program has stopped taking applications.

He also said the grant program would help mitigate the risk of lowered consumer confidence for businesses by giving them what they need to make their customers feel they are safe.

In other news, total COVID-19 cases in Arkansas rose to 3,192. Hospitalizations are down by 11, to 93, and seven more people have died. Fifty-nine Arkansans have died from the virus; 1,249 have recovered.

Complex Process

Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton who is leading the Governor’s Economic Recovery Task Force, called the new grant program “crucial” and “exciting.”

He said the task force had met several times to discuss industry-specific coronavirus guidelines for businesses to follow as they work toward returning to normal operations.

“With respect to reopening business and the road ahead, I just wanted to highlight a couple of thoughts that have become front and center for me. One is that some types of activities will take longer than others to normalize,” Walton said. “And we’re doing our best to be as specific as we can be, but the complexity involved in reopening an economy like this is surprising to me. And it’s profound. .. We must move as quickly as we can, as safely as we can.”

He also said there is an opportunity for entrepreneurship in Arkansas to flourish and for businesses to learn a lot during the process that they can use going forward.

Walton added that Arkansas must do what’s best for Arkansas. The state is not competing with other states to lift restrictions first, each state and region is different, and Arkansas can learn from what others do, he said.