By Dale Liesch, Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
With 36 cases of the COVID-19 confirmed across the state as of Tuesday morning, the response from governments, individuals and businesses is in full effect, and the massive effort to slow down the spread of this highly infectious virus is taking the United States and coastal Alabama into unfamiliar territory.
Caused by a previously unknown human coronavirus, COVID-19 can have similar symptoms to a common cold, but it can cause severe, potentially fatal respiratory complications. Most younger patients may only experience mild to severe symptoms like fever, coughing and shortness of breath, and fully recover. However, the risk of serious illness and death is much greater for the eldery and those with existing medical complications.
The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) confirmed Alabama’s first case of the coronavirus on March 14, but within 48 hours the number of cases expanded to 22. The next day it was 24, then 29. As of Tuesday morning, the number of confirmed cases in the state was 36, according to ADPH.
Across the U.S, there have been 4,661 confirmed cases and 85 deaths associated with COVID-19 as of Tuesday mornings, as federal, state and local governments have declared states of emergency and taken steps that range from encouraging residents to stay home to closing public schools and enforcing 24-hour “lockdowns.”
Following the lead of President Donald J. Trump on the federal level, state officials declared a state of emergency in Alabama and ordered all public schools in Alabama to remain closed from March 18 until at least April 6 in hopes of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Most private and parochial schools have adopted a similar hiatus and most Alabama colleges have shifted from in-person to online instruction.
ADPH recently issued guidance encouraging local officials, business owners and event organizers to limit the number of persons at gatherings or in public spaces and businesses across the state. The White House has also asked that all citizens avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, stay away from bars, restaurants and food courts and avoid discretionary travel.
State Health Officer Scott Harris said Monday there’s no magic number that keeps people safe from COVID-19. Instead, it ultimately comes down to how people are interacting with one another.
“We’d like to direct Alabamians not to be involved in gatherings that can’t maintain a 6-foot distance between participants, which would include things like festivals, parades, sporting events and the like,” he said. “We’re also recommending senior adults be particularly cautious about crowds and try to avoid travel — especially travel by air, train or bus, where they might be in a confined space with other people.”
State officials have also advised retail businesses and restaurants to limit patronage to about half of their normal allowable capacity. Harris also said daycares should apply the same standard; if a facility is unable to maintain six-feet of separation between children, ADPH is recommending it close for the time being.
These new recommendations are part of national efforts to slow the spread of the virus so the number of infected doesn’t overwhelm the healthcare system in areas where outbreaks occur. States like Ohio, Michigan, California, Florida and Louisiana have ordered bars and nightclubs to close down.
Harris said limiting capacity is a more “reasonable” approach for Alabama for the time being, though Jefferson County — where 20 of the 36 cases confirmed in Alabama were reported — has issued an order suspending all on-site consumption at bars and restaurants for at least the next week.
Gov. Kay Ivey extended the same week-long prohibition of on-site food or beverage consumption to neighboring Tuscaloosa, Walker, Blount, St. Clair and Shelby counties the following day. Harris has already “strongly” encouraged county health authorities throughout the state to adopt similar measures and said he’s seriously considered expanding these and other restrictions statewide.
In addition to the COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County, three have been confirmed in Shelby County, three in Tuscaloosa County, two in Montgomery County and one each in Baldwin, Elmore, Lee and Limestone counties. As of Tuesday morning, no cases had been confirmed in Mobile County, according to ADPH.
At the request of Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the Mobile City Council voted to amend the city’s ordinance in order to declare a public health emergency in response to COVID-19. Stimpson said the declaration would “enable the city to make emergency purchases, prohibit price gouging and (if necessary) enact a curfew, among other steps.”
At the moment, City Hall is slated to remain open, city employees are continuing to report to work and garbage and trash pickup will remain on schedule. Stimpson said the city would be limiting access to City Hall by finding ways that employees could work with citizens online or remotely from their homes.
Stimpson also said the city would not be closing restaurants or bars in Mobile. Instead, he asked residents and business owners to use common sense and suggested patrons practice social distancing by leaving empty tables between themselves and others. He asked residents to be “disciplined” about going out.
“If you have a vulnerability … maybe you should not attend things that your friend who never gets sick attends,” Stimpson said. “I still think there’s some judgement to be taken.”
According to its website, ADPH is testing around 150 patients a day on average and the results are taking anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to come in. However, Alabama was one of the last states in the U.S. to begin widespread testing, which state health officials have been criticized for.
However, Harris has defended ADPH, saying the delay in ramping up the number of tests was due to additional training that was required as well as a restrictive criteria for who qualified for testing, which was only expanded last week. On March 16, he said Alabama doesn’t have any issues with testing capacity at this time and said state and federal officials are continuing to increase testing efforts moving forward.
“We’ve been continuing to work on a plan to set up screening sites across the state. We have roughly 20 sites identified so far, but we’re not making that public until we’re able to get them staffed and equipped,” he said. “There are some locations that have already opened drive-thru screening clinics.”
Over the weekend, ADPH launched a call center for those who think they may be infected with COVID-19. The toll-free number is 888-264-2256, though Harris did encourage those with an existing patient-provider relationship to reach out to their doctors first for evaluation and assistance getting tested.
The Mobile County Health Department has also set up a COVID-19 Information Line, which can be reached at 251-410-MCHD (6243). A handful of private testing facilities have popped up around the state.
Right now, state officials are still urging the majority of citizens to protect themselves and others by routinely washing their hands with soap and warm water, covering their coughs and sneezes, avoiding large gatherings and staying home as much as possible.
Alabama Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) Director Brian Hastings also encouraged all citizens, especially younger residents, to take COVID-19 seriously. Because elderly and immunocompromised residents are the most susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19, Hastings said many younger people don’t seem to respect the coronavirus and the potential impact it could have on those vulnerable populations.
“Young people are still transmitting this disease. You could be going about your daily activities and infecting others without realizing it,” Hastings said. “This is a disaster, and that’s why we have a national state of emergency. We want to make sure you’re empowered to make the decisions that are going to help slow this disease, but it’s going to take everyone’s action and everyone taking this seriously.”
State officials have also raised concern about the potential spread of infection during Alabama’s primary runoff election. Though multiple candidates have suspended political ads and campaign events in response to the virus, the election is still scheduled to be held on March 31.
However, state officials have inquired about whether delaying the runoff is a possibility under Alabama law. Other states have delayed elections including Ohio, which postponed its primary only a few hours before it was scheduled to start on Tuesday morning.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Merrill sent a letter requesting an emergency opinion from Alabama Attorney General (AG) Steve Marshall’s office on whether or not Ivey could delay the election because of the special powers she is able to use during a declared state of emergency.
“The health and wellbeing of the people of this state are of paramount importance. In order to effectively practice social distancing, as recommended by President [Trump], the CDC, the ADPH, etc., the March 31 runoff election must be postponed,” Merrill wrote in the letter. “In postponing the election until the threat of the coronavirus is eliminated, Alabamians will be able to participate in the electoral process in a safe and healthy environment, as they have done in the past.”
Probate Judge Don Davis is the chief elections officer in Mobile County, and while his office is waiting to see how the request to the AG’s office will play out, they are still moving forward with training for the poll workers who will collect ballots March 31 if the runoff goes forward as planned.
However, Davis did say he too has heard concerns about the possible risk to human health and is also working to make sure that planned polling locations that have closed in response to COVID-19 — places like schools, churches and museums — are still willing to provide that service under the circumstances.
“Another issue that we’re dealing with is that the vast majority of our poll workers are 60 years of age and older,” Davis said. “We’ve received some calls from followers expressing concern and wanting to know whether they’re going to be asked to serve, and we’re just asking them to tread water right now until we can get direction from Montgomery.”
So far, Marshall’s office has not formally responded to Merrill’s questions about postponing the runoff.
Impacts on the Gulf Coast
Locally, some of the biggest impacts so far appear to be from the preventative measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some local businesses are already feeling the effects of fewer customers coming through the door, while others have shifted their focus to carry-out orders to limit the potential for exposure.
Roosters in Mobile is encouraging the use of their online ordering system by waiving its delivery fee. Other restaurants are canceling events, like Callaghan’s Irish Social Club’s annual St. Patrick’s Day event that typically drew hundreds of people to the Oakleigh Garden District. When there still seemed to be interest in showing up despite the cancellation, Callaghan’s announced it would be closed entirely on March 17.
Other business owners are worried about long-term impacts if the government continues to encourage self-isolation or if there will be an order from the state or local government to close up shop.
David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar & Grille and The Royal Scam, said his restaurants have already seen a major impact from a decline in usual business over the weekend.
“We’re taking all the precautions we can,” he said. “The reality is that when some degree of isolation is needed here, it will affect anyone in a retail setting.”
So far, Rasp said the lunch crowds are better than the evening ones and the nighttime business drops off quickly already. Because of the weather and the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, Rasp said last weekend was good, despite COVID-19 concerns. Monday, March 16 was much slower.
“Monday was 50 percent off of what we normally do,” Rasp said. “It’s not sustainable. You could say it’s not sustainable for operators, but it’s also not sustainable for service workers who rely on tips.”
Rasp is left wondering in which direction to take the business if COVID-19 precautions persist and said his restaurants have considered a limited menu in order to make converting to a possible takeout model easier.
“It’s a situation that’s very fluid and ongoing every day,” he added.
Some retail stores on the Gulf Coast have had a hard time keeping certain products on the shelves as some people have bought things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and food in bulk in case they face an extended quarantine at home. In response to this “panic buying,” state and local officials have stressed that there is no need for Alabamians to be stockpiling groceries and other household goods right now.
Earlier this week, Ivey said the state has no intention to close or limit access to grocery stores.
“I want to remind our citizens that grocery stores aren’t shutting down,” Ivey tweeted Monday. “Let’s all be responsible and only get what is needed. Grocers are doing their best to restock, but we mustn’t let fear cause a panic.”
The Mobile County Commission has also declared a state of local emergency and is currently trying to work on a contingency plan for providing essential services to residents while limiting unnecessary access to county facilities, protecting employees and preventing the spread of the virus among the public.
Speaking with department heads this week, commissioners were told many functions of the license and revenue commissions could be performed online or temporarily delayed, while employees who might be at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19 should be prioritized to work from home.
However, the Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie raised some concerns about how the commission would handle paid time off and sick leave for employees having to miss work to quarantine themselves or to watch their children while schools are closed. Hastie said that was her biggest hurdle.
“Up to that point, I thought we could manage by letting people who are elderly or sick leave but still work and maybe limit the members of the public,” Hastie said. “But once they closed the school system down for two and half of weeks — 60 percent of my office has kids. How do you manage that?”
Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl assured Hastie and other department heads commissioners were working on these issues alongside the county administration, adding the declaration of local emergency would give them more flexibility to make adjustments quickly without having to call a public meeting.
Carl said he wasn’t sure how long all of the measures in place at all levels of government would be in effect, but asked that people remain calm. He also emphasised the national and local efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus are “offensive moves, not defensive moves.”
“Bottom line: We’re trying to starve this virus out. You quit giving it places to grow and multiply and sooner or later it will kill itself out,” Carl said. “Nothing here is going to stay solid, it’s going to be fluid and we’ll be changing things as we feel like we need to. Anything that comes out of this — whether positive or negative — you’ll see us making some moves pretty quickly in response.”
In Baldwin County, where coastal Alabama’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced only a few days ago, closures and cancellations have intensified. Schools and courts followed statewide orders to cancel or postpone certain functions for as long as a month.
The Baldwin County Commission met over the weekend to declare its own local emergency, giving authority to Commission Chairwoman Billie Jo Underwood to close public buildings and make payments on behalf of the county as necessary. On Monday, the commission announced it had also “temporarily suspended face-to-face services and instead are providing online, phone and other methods for citizens to do business in a safe manner until further notice.”
Departments closed to the public include, but are not limited to: the animal shelter, buildings department, Council on Aging, Juvenile Detention Center, planning and zoning, probate, revenue and legislative delegation. The Baldwin Rural Area Transportation Service (BRATS) will run dialysis, school, medical and nutrition routes, but “nonessential” routes are closed.
Similarly, the cities of Fairhope, Bay Minette, Foley and Silverhill all declared their own states of emergency by Tuesday, closing non-essential buildings to the public.
But in a different approach, the city of Orange Beach scheduled a “town hall” meeting Tuesday night to “have a public conversation about upcoming decisions needing to be made and get the input of the residents,” according to Mayor Tony Kennon. “We are really trying to evaluate and assess what is happening right now regarding COVID-19 before making decisions with significant consequences that could hurt our folks either way. There is so much that is not known as there is minimal data out there.”
Local beaches were heavily attended last week as the spring break season begins, and the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber noted there are currently “no restrictions on travel anywhere in the domestic United States, which includes Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the state of Alabama.” However, officials at most levels of government have advised against unnecessary travel, and other areas of the country have closed public beaches.
As a major tourism destination, Baldwin County has also felt the effects of a slew of events being canceled or postponed, such as the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival, NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship and others.
In a “seven-day outlook,” the chamber reported that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism has analyzed vacation rental data for the coming week and found occupancy is slightly less than the same time period in 2019 while cancellations are on par with the same time period in 2019.
But as the event cancellations rolled in last week, the Hangout Music Fest issued its first official statement since the outbreak started, with organizers saying it is “moving forward as planned.” Scheduled May 15-17 in Gulf Shores, the sold-out event is expected to bring more than 40,000 music fans to the beach, and features headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers, Post Malone, Billie Eilish and Marshmello.
No artists have announced they were canceling their appearances at Hangout, although Eilish is one of many who have canceled tour dates through March or beyond. Concert promoters Live Nation and AEG suspended all tours through the end of the month and other large festivals such as Austin’s SXSW and Coachella in California have been canceled in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the U.S.
In the statement, Hangout organizers said, “safety is our number one concern for our fans, employees, vendors and the community” and “we will continue to work with the appropriate authorities to produce a safe and healthy festival.”
However, it did encourage ticket-holders to stay tuned as new information becomes available.
Gulf Shores officials said they are “actively monitoring the evolving situation related to the outbreak of COVID-19, and want to assure the public that all possible precautionary measures to prevent the spread of this illness in the Gulf Shores community are being taken.”
Upcoming public event cancellations in Gulf Shores will be determined by the city on a case-by-case basis, depending on the potential risk to the community, according to a statement, and updates will be provided at gulfshoresal.gov and through social media.
Spanish Fort City Hall is maintaining normal business hours but all Spanish Fort youth league athletic events were postponed until further notice. Daphne City Hall is also open for business, but the library, parks and recreation and senior services have been closed, suspended or are offering limited services.
Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency Director Zach Hood told the commission Tuesday the department is operating at a “Level 3” emergency. The county is following the guidelines and recommendations of ADPH and is passing that along to residents, “so they can be informed and empowered to make the best decision in their home, business or wherever life has them in our county.”
The county is expected to hold a news conference Wednesday at noon for an update.
In a phone call with statewide media Tuesday morning, Sen. Doug Jones acknowledged there will be “long-term economic implications” to the pandemic. The Senate was expected to vote on, or possibly unanimously pass, an economic incentive package before the end of the day, the second of three emergency funding measures he hoped would pass soon.
“These are difficult times and I believe they’ll get more difficult,” he said. “We’re in an unprecedented situation for our country and the world. So, what we’re doing here is to work to make sure we can get resources to our healthcare workers, to our small businesses and our working families. While this will no doubt be a huge financial stressor, it won’t break us.”
Jones said he would work to ensure the bill covers any COVID-19 testing costs for the uninsured, includes an expedited approval process for vaccines, provides healthcare workers access to child-care assistance, delays or extends tax filing deadlines to August or beyond without interest or penalties, and writes a check from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to eligible residents to receive “strong, direct, monthly financial assistance.”
“Everything is on the table and I know we have ballooning deficits, but this is no time to be concerned about that,” he said, warning the economic repercussions could be “much more severe” than the 2008 recession.
“In an ideal world, you would like to see what the full economic impact will be, but we’re trying to take steps now to blunt the impact, and that means getting some payments directly to people to make sure they can get through this crisis,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Springhill Medical Center had sat up a tent outside of its facility for testing and treating COVID-19. The hospital is not currently testing for the virus. The tent is a triage area for staff to assess patient symptoms before allowing them into the hospital.
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