The executive emergency order that’s been in place since March of 2020 to help Arkansans weather the pandemic will expire May 30, Governor Hutchinson announced Thursday.
The order qualified Arkansans suffering economically during the pandemic for additional federal SNAP benefits, and Hutchinson said he is hoping to be able to extend those benefits despite dropping the state emergency. The executive order also qualified restaurants and other essential service businesses for pandemic-related federal tax credits, cleared the way for an already defunct statewide mask mandate and altered policies about insurance coverage for telemedicine, alcohol home delivery and in-person witnessing of legal documents to allow people to carry on with work and play while still maintaining social distance.
Ending the order doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, or that Arkansans should let down their guard, Hutchinson emphasized. (He said the same when he dropped the statewide mask mandate, and social media feeds quickly filled up with pictures of unmasked people packing into bars, but there’s always a chance it will be different this time.)
To counteract any suggestion that the pandemic is over, the state is launching a series of legitimately charming commercials featuring Arkansas stars and influencers tempting their fellow citizens toward immunity. Razorback basketball great Sidney Moncrief stars in one of them, which features him back on the court. “Let’s vaccinate Arkansas so we can all get back in the game. It’s the easiest shot you’ll ever take,” he says.
Another ad features restauranteurs from Bald Knob (Bulldog Restaurant), McCrory (Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ), Helena-West Helena (Pasquale’s Tamales) and Marianna (Jones Bar-B-Q) encouraging their friends, neighbors and customers to get the vaccine. “Those are called influencers,” Hutchinson explained.
The ads are part of a $6.4 million ad campaign to encourage vaccines. Another $2 million will go for a separate campaign targeting marginalized communities.
The state will dangle $100 bonuses to executive branch state agency employees who get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 1. That’s 25,772 employees who will be eligible. The 43.7 percent of executive branch state agency employees already vaccinated will get a check, as will employees who get at least one dose by the end of June. The plan is for each person to get exactly $100, so the state is allocating enough to cover the taxes on it. The cost for this incentive program, should it achieve a 70% participation rate among the employees, will be $3.2 million, to be covered by federal payments headed to Arkansas as part of the American Rescue Plan.
“Our state workers, in many instances, are providing an environment for the public to come in and do business. We want the public to know we’re doing everything we can to keep it safe,” Hutchinson said.
He said he encourage private businesses to similarly incentivize employees with money or other perks to bring Arkansas closer to his goal of having 50% of all Arkansans vaccinated against COVID-19. Hutchinson is also considering offering some sort of incentive to the public, although he’s not yet sure what that would be.