April 1, 2021

Arkansas businesses keeping mask rule

Notices requiring shoppers and diners to wear masks will persist in Arkansas this week even…

Notices requiring shoppers and diners to wear masks will persist in Arkansas this week even if Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson decides to discontinue the state’s mask mandate.

Businesses big and small say they will continue to ask patrons to wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of covid-19.

Proprietors said they believe it will be months before life returns to the way it was before the pandemic, and they want to continue following federal health guidelines for the safety of their workers and customers.

“I think we are far away from reaching herd immunity and will continue with a strict mask proposal,” said Capi Peck, chef and owner of Trio’s in Little Rock.

Hutchinson said Monday that he would allow the mask mandate to expire Wednesday, but he hasn’t made an official announcement.

When the coronavirus hit a year ago, Trio’s was one of the first eateries to close its dine-in seating and offer curbside and delivery only. As time went on, restaurants and cafes began to reopen for dine-in with limited capacity. Peck said Trio’s recently received permission to have up to 100% capacity, but kept it at 50%, saying “personally, it wasn’t the safe thing to do.”

Food service workers became eligible for the vaccine only two weeks ago, and the first dose isn’t fully effective for another four to six weeks after being administered, she said.

“We are going to stay the course. I think the community is appreciative of that,” Peck said. “I respect the governor, but I think it’s sending the wrong message to say it’s OK to not wear masks anymore. I think we are months away from that.”

Arkansas’ mask mandate, like others across the country, requires Arkansans to wear face coverings in public indoor and outdoor settings where people cannot at least be 6 feet apart, with exceptions for children younger than 10 years of age and members of the same household.

Mask ordinances were first implemented at the city level by Fayetteville in June, followed by Little Rock, before the statewide mandate took effect.

The statewide mandate for face coverings in public first took effect July 20. At the time, law enforcement officers said they were concerned about how they would enforce the rule. Critics called it an overreach of power by the state. Others were relieved.

“It takes the burden off us as store owners to make the rules,” said Courtney Ulrich-Smith, co-owner of Dandy Roll, a home goods store in Rogers.

The store, which sells antique prints and an eclectic mix of clothes, books, candles and other accessories, was closed for more than two months after the pandemic hit. When it reopened in June, Ulrich-Smith and partner Dom Smith said they rearranged the store, hung up mask signs, adhered to federal health guidelines and asked their customers to do the same. If the weather allowed, they kept the front door open to increase air flow through the store.

In general, Arkansas has supported small businesses through grants and other programs during the pandemic, but Smith said he was “thrown for a loop” Monday when Hutchinson said he would end the mandate.

Ulrich-Smith said it has the potential to create unnecessary conflict with shoppers on a regular basis if one store requires masks while another does not.

“It undermines me as a business owner,” she said. “It makes people think I’m extreme to enforce things, while before it was easy to say it’s the state’s rule. It’s easy to have that backup.”

Retail giant Walmart Inc. also said it will continue requiring employees and customers to wear face masks in its stores in Arkansas and elsewhere despite the state mandate’s end, Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene said.

The Bentonville-based retailer has more than 5,000 stores and clubs nationwide.

In Arkansas, Walmart had 130 stores and Sam’s Clubs as of Nov. 2, plus 11 distribution centers. The company employs about 42,000 workers in the state, according to its website.

“We serve millions of Americans every week and believe our policy … has helped protect them during the pandemic,” Keene said. “We’re not lifting those measures at this time.”

Walmart will also continue to constantly evaluate its virus-related protocols, Keene said, keeping in mind guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as local covid-19 statistics.

Dillard’s Inc., the Little Rock-based department store chain, had no comment on its plans regarding change in its mask policy, a spokeswoman said. Its website does not mention a mask-wearing policy for employees or customers.

Dillard’s operates 250 department stores and 32 clearance centers across 29 states, as well as its e-commerce business. It has eight stores in Arkansas, according to its 2020 annual report, as well as a distribution center in Mabelvale and an internet fulfillment center in Maumelle.

The Kroger Co., which has 32 grocery stores and four jewelry stores in Arkansas, said in an emailed statement that it will require everyone in its stores across the country to wear masks until all its front-line grocery workers can be vaccinated.

Kroger employs more than 4,300 workers in Arkansas. It has a presence in 35 states under a number of banners, according to its website.

The Ohio-based company also said it will keep advocating to federal, state and local officials to prioritize inoculating front-line grocery workers against covid-19.

Springdale-based Harps Food Stores Inc. did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Its webpage on how the grocery chain is addressing covid-19 was last updated in March 2020, and doesn’t mention facial coverings.

Besides Arkansas, Harps also has stores in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Dollar General Corp. also will continue requiring all employees, customers and vendors to wear face coverings in stores, distribution centers and corporate offices nationwide.

A Dollar General spokeswoman said the discount store chain also requires social distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols, among other preventive measures.

Based in Goodlettsville, Tenn., Dollar General has more than 17,000 stores over 46 states, according to its fourth-quarter 2020 earnings report. It had 452 stores in Arkansas as of February 2020, according to research firm Statista.

The National Retail Federation recently issued a statement urging the public to continue following store rules as states reign in their restrictions. The governors of Texas and Mississippi lifted mask mandates in their states earlier this month, despite criticism from health officials and President Joe Biden.