Based on a comparison of public reports on other states’ response to COVID-19, Alabama appears to be doing as much as others in terms of limiting public gatherings and mandating social distancing despite not having yet issued a “stay home” or “shelter in place” order.
As Lagniappe reported, there has been significant pressure on public officials at the local and state levels to issue a “stay home” order that could mandate social distancing and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that spreads the respiratory disease COVID-19. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones called on Gov. Kay Ivey to issue a stay home order during a press event Thursday, but the governor has so far resisted.
Other Alabama officials have taken a similar position to Jones, especially as other Southern states like Georgia, Florida and Mississippi have issued “stay home” orders in recent days. According to an analysis by the New York Times, there are “297 million people in 38 states, 48 counties, 14 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico” under some type of ‘stay home’ order or advisory.
The push for Alabamaians to join them has come as numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths have increased locally and statewide. As of Friday morning, there were 1,336 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the state, including 74 in Mobile County, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).
There have been 34 reported deaths from COVID-19 in Alabama and four in Mobile County so far.
In addition to Ivey, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has also received repeated questions about whether he’ll use his authority to issue some type of shelter in place order or curfew locally, as leaders in Alabama cities like Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have already. So far Stimpson and Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold have both declined to issue any kind of supplemental curfew or stay home order.
However, in recent interviews with local media, Stimpson has also questioned what exactly would change if he or the state were to issue a shelter in place order. He said there seemed to be a misconception that a shelter in place order would mean people were forced to stay in their homes entirely.
“The question is: What can we do that’s different from what’s already being done? There’s not much. I’ve chosen not to make it seem like we’ve made some kind of radical changes,” Stimpson said. “You would still need to go to the grocery store, you would still have utilities, you would still have to have banks…. People hear shelter in place they think everything just shuts down, but there are exceptions to all of it.”
There does seem to be a significant lack of clarity about what a shelter in place order would actually look like were one to be enacted across Alabama or in Mobile specifically. When asked Thursday, Stimpson told Lagniappe reporter Dale Liesch he didn’t want to be “pinned down” on any possible specifics.
A spokesperson for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said any decision on further restrictions would be made in consultation with the ADPH and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. However, multiple requests to ADPH for information on what further restrictions might look like haven’t received a response.
One of the reasons some states use “shelter in place” and others use “stay home” is that some leaders, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have argued using terms like “shelter in place” causes unnecessary panic among residents. One thing is clear though: Neither a shelter in place nor a stay home means people can’t leave their homes at all. Every state, city and county with such an order provides exceptions.
The table below was compiled based on prior reporting conducted by New York Times and from Lagniappe’s own review of health orders issued in other states. It includes several Southern states as well as California, New York, Ohio, and Illinois — states that either have significant outbreaks, large population centers or were early adopters of statewide public health restrictions.
Public health restrictions enacted by Alabama and other states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each of the states provides some type of exception for necessary travel by citizens and allows “essential businesses” to remain open.
Those typically include grocery stores, hardware stores, pet stores, gun stores, banks, liquor stores, utilities, refineries, oilfield production, construction, chemical production, communications, shipyards and healthcare facilities. Obviously, that can vary from region to region.
Officials in Alabama ordered “non-essential” businesses across the state to close last week including standalone clothing, furniture and jewelry stores as well as close-contact services and entertainment businesses. This category also includes theaters, auditoriums, bowling alleys, gyms, yoga studios, playgrounds, barbershops as well as nail, tanning and massage salons.
Most states, including Alabama, are restricting gatherings exceeding federal social distancing recommendations, which are currently for no more than 10 people to congregate or for any number of people to congregate in a manner that does not allow at least 6 feet of separation between participants.
The Mobile Police Department released guidance Thursday on how it will handle groups or gatherings violating these statewide health orders, which during a state of emergency, are treated as misdemeanor criminal offenses. According to MPD, “police are asking for voluntary compliance from all, but will take enforcement action if needed, which could include possible fines or jail time.”
Lagniappe reached out to Mobile Public Safety Director James Baber Friday for input on how enforcement might change under some kind of a “stay home” order but has yet to receive a response.
While the terms seem simple enough, neither “stay home” nor “shelter in place” have a comprehensive legal definition from state to state or city to city. Generally, the parameters of what is restricted by such an order are set in subsequent orders from the state or municipality. In Alabama’s case, most statewide restrictions have come down through supplemental “state of emergency” declarations issued by Gov. Ivey.
While Ivey has not issued a “shelter in place” order, her office — in conjunction with a coronavirus task force and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris — has implemented a series of escalating restrictions that have limited businesses and services in ways similar to states that have issued such orders.
For instance, the orders being rolled out in Georgia and Mississippi currently will limit restaurants to just to-go and curbside service and order “non-essential” businesses to close, including all entertainment venues, the vast majority of retail stores and any business that requires close contact with clients.
However, Alabama has had all of those restrictions in place for at least a week and some for more than two weeks. State officials have also closed public schools for the rest of the year and given mayors and local health officials the authority to implement further restrictions they deem necessary in their area.
So far, Jefferson County, the city of Birmingham and the city of Tuscaloosa have implemented stricter limitations — like nightly curfews and “stay at home orders.” So far, officials in Mobile have not felt the need to do so, though Stimpson has maintained that “all options are on the table.”
Still some proponents of issuing a statewide “shelter in place” or “stay home” order have argued it sends a serious message from the government to remain home if you can and to follow other social distancing guidelines.
Yesterday, Jones said if it did nothing else it would drive home how serious the situation is for Alabama, which health experts have warned has a “uniquely vulnerable” population.
“I’ve been promoting stay-at-home orders for some time. It sends a strong message of how significant it is to use social distancing and whatever means necessary to stop the spread of this virus,” Jones said during a digital town hall event. “An order from the governor really gets that message across.”
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