- Associated Press - Monday, March 29, 2021

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers on Monday rejected an effort to end the emergency declared because of the coronavirus pandemic, as Gov. Asa Hutchinson repeated his intent to drop the state’s mask mandate later this week.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s vote effectively approves Hutchinson’s request to extend the emergency he declared because of the pandemic for another two months. The panel reviewed the request under a new law that expands the Legislature’s power to terminate an emergency and orders issued under it.

Hutchinson urged lawmakers to keep the emergency in place, saying it would ensure Arkansas continues receiving an additional $23 million in food stamp benefits. He said it would also keep in place executive orders, such as liability protection for some businesses, that the Legislature is trying to write into law.

“To lift the emergency at particular this time would send the wrong message to the people of Arkansas that would not put our state in good position,” Hutchinson told the panel before its vote.

Hutchinson last month lifted most of the state’s coronavirus restrictions and he has said the state is on track to end its mask mandate this week. He noted that under the new law, he would have had to submit the mandate to lawmakers if he planned to renew it.

“The mask mandate, as you noticed, was not submitted as a directive, which sent the signal to you it’s not going to be renewed,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson moved closer toward ending the mandate even as President Joe Biden urged governors to reinstate mask requirements and other restrictions.

Hutchinson has faced pushback from fellow Republicans in the Legislature over the emergency declaration and the restrictions issued under it. A lawsuit by a group of GOP legislators challenging the state’s emergency declaration is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Opponents of extending the emergency cited the drop the state has seen in recent weeks in its active cases and hospitalizations. The department on Monday reported active virus cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have died or recovered, decreased by 172 to 1,773. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations decreased by seven to 164.

“The truth is we need to be able to return back to normal life,” Republican Sen. Breanne Davis said.

Hutchinson also indicated the state is moving closer toward opening its vaccine eligibility further, saying he planned to announce a decision on the issue on Tuesday. The state currently has made the vaccine to people 65 and over and a large number of other categories that include teachers, law enforcement, food service workers and other essential employees.

Overall, the state’s virus cases on Monday increased by 79 to 330,008 total since the pandemic began. Arkansas’ COVID-19 deaths increased by six to 5,601.

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