OPENING RESTAURANTS: The governor outlines the plan. Brian Chilson

Gov Asa Hutchinson laid out plans today for a “limited” reopening of restaurants statewide beginning May 11.

In-restaurant dining may resume, but with a list of health guidelines. The specific directive is coming later today.

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UPDATE: here are specifics

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The restrictions on dine-in service under this directive include:
Phase 1
  • Restaurants must limit number of customers to one-third of total capacity.
  • Tables must be ten feet apart so that diners will be seated six feet away from diners at other tables.
  • Each employee who directly interacts with patrons must wear a face mask that completely covers nose and mouth. Kitchen staff and others are encouraged to wear a mask.
  • Each employee must wear gloves. Gloves should be changed between each customer, customer group, or task.
  • Management must conduct a daily health screening of all employees before they enter the restaurant. An employee with a cough, sore throat, fever, or shortness of breath must not enter the restaurant.
  • Patrons must wear a face covering until the food or drink is served.
  • Salad bars, buffets, and other self-serve features will remain closed.
  • Groups must be 10 or fewer customers.
  • Tables, chairs, salt/pepper shakers, condiment containers, and napkin holders will be cleaned and disinfected after each customer.
  • Bars and entertainment operations (such as live music, in-seat gaming devices, or arcades) are prohibited.
  • Normal service of alcohol within the restaurant seating area is allowed.
  • Restrooms should be disinfected frequently.
  • Service may be declined to patrons not wearing masks. 
These Phase 1 restrictions will remain in place until Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith determines that they may be relaxed or discontinued.

Restaurants will be limited to 33 percent of occupancy. Hutchinson said he recognized that wasn’t enough to cover overhead for many, but that’s where it must start. At phase 2, the rate could go to 67 percent.

Physical distancing will be required. Reservations will be encouraged, but not required to hold down the number of people waiting to be seated. Face coverings will be required for wait staff and diners, “until the time their order is placed.” No groups over 10. Gloves required for staff. A time for service to seniors is also encouraged. Tables must be six feet apart.

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Bars must remain closed and no entertainment will be allowed, though alcohol may be served with meals at tables. Free-standing bars and taverns must remain closed for now. Restaurants may continue to sell alcohol with take-out orders.

The governor acknowledged furniture must be moved, protective gear must be purchased and other expenses are likely as businesses reopen.

To help, the state has created a $15 million fund to help businesses reopen and also build consumer confidence. This will help people think, “Yes, this is someplace good to go,” the governor said. This program is not just for restaurants but other businesses as well. arkansasedc.com will have information sometime later this afternoon.

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Grants of up to $100,000 will be available, based on the number of employees. It will cover protective equipment, sanitizers and other one-time reopening expenses. Health Director Nate Smith said restaurant workers won’t need gear such as that used by health workers. Cloth face coverings (cloth is better than paper because it is washable) and gloves are the primary needs. N-95 masks aren’t required. Gloves don’t mean doing away with hand washing. And he said gloves need to be changed between customers. Gloves may be washed, he noted.

The health department will continue its standard inspections but now also watching for the new guidelines.

The case count

The daily count as of 1:30 p.m.: From 3,111 yesterday, it was up 81 to 3,192 today. That’s a rise by any measure because the count includes no new cases from Cummins prison.

Hospitalizations dropped by 11 to 93 cases today. Deaths are up 7, to 59, about a third from nursing homes. 340 health workers have become infected.

Hutchinson said the “general trend is encouraging news.” But the drop in the rolling seven-day average reflects a peak driven by Cummins numbers.

Health Director Nate Smith said the state currently has almost 200 people to do contact tracing to find those who’ve been in contacted by those with the virus.

RECOVERING: The governor with Steuart Walton

Steuart Walton, named by the governor to lead a recovery task force, spoke about “the road ahead.”

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He said: “Some types of activities will take longer than others to normalize. The complexity involved in reopening an economy is surprising to me and it’s profound.”

He said he was optimistic that, while things weren’t likely to return to “exactly the way they were,” that there was an opportunity for independent thinkers and entrepreneurs to come up with creative ways to evolve. He said it was important to understand that no one path will be the same for all. “We are competing against ourselves,” he said. “We are the judge that matters most.”

Q&A

What if some mayors aren’t ready for this? The governor said he thought most would have a “comfort level” with the reopening under the rules. He said he’d had good feedback.

Won’t there still be some risk for customers? Vulnerable people probably should be “extra careful,” Hutchinson said. You might decide to stay home or just get carryout. That part should be self-regulated. Restaurants will screen by warning away people who are ill.

Can cities still have curfews and will the change affect off-premise alcohol sales? The rule for alcohol at carryout will continue because some businesses may not reopen for dining. And those that do may still have heavy delivery business as well. Curfews remain the responsibility of cities.

What about the high number of nursing home cases and deaths? It’s “heartbreaking,” Hutchinson said. But what can be done? Nate Smith said the homes had worked hard.

What about evictions? Hutchinson said he still wasn’t ready to order a halt to all evictions. He said he expected landlords to work in a “humanitarian fashion.” But he said renters when they have the money ought to be paying the rent. “I’m relying on that trust relationship.”

The various state officials talked also of protecting businesses from liability in reopening. The governor said existing law protected workers harmed by unsafe conditions. The point is to keep workers out of the court system. He said he didn’t want to see a flood of litigation as a result of going back to work.

UPDATE: A quick comment from a restaurant operator on today’s development: