Baldwin County officials held a news conference at noon today to encourage citizens to follow official communication from the state or local authorities regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, and be aware of the limitations of government business while people are encouraged to avoid crowds and practice social distancing.
Other than that, little actual news was disclosed. Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, said despite closures and cancellations nationwide, the beaches of south Baldwin County remain open, and occupancy rates are currently at about 70 percent.
“It’s not my decision to close the beaches,” he said, adding any such order would be the task of the governor’s office. This morning, Gov. Kay Ivey reportedly said she was considering it.
“We do communicate with all of our local decision makers, and I don’t want to be in their shoes,” Malone continued. “There are big decisions to make, but we will always follow whatever decisions are made at that level.”
Tourism is a huge industry in Baldwin County, where 6.5 million visitors left a $4.7 billion economic impact last year, Malone said. But relating information from city council meetings he attended Monday and Tuesday, Malone said Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft “didn’t see the beaches closing at this point,” while Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon suggested his city would follow any order from the governor’s office, but would not take action on its own.
“There have been a lot of questions about why [tourists] are still here,” Malone said. “It’s their individual choice and individual freedom. They have spent money to be there, made reservations quite some time ago. While they are here, we want to make sure they get the experience they normally get, as close as we can, and our businesses are catering to them.”
Some restaurants and tourist destinations in south Baldwin have closed voluntarily, while others remain open with or without restrictions. It’s a scenario at odds with other areas around the state, including Mobile County, where this morning the Mobile County Health Department ordered restaurants and bars to close to dine-in guests for a period of seven days.
At the same news conference, Alabama Department of Health consultant Dr. Karen Landers encouraged everyone to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control regarding hygiene and social distancing, while reconsidering “whether or not you need to be traveling.”
Although one case of COVID-19 has been reported in Baldwin County, there are currently zero test sites there, Landers said.
53,000 people are employed by Baldwin County’s tourism industry. Donna Watts, president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said the five business chambers in the county “want to be prepared to help businesses with their business and their employees,” but “we understand there will probably be loss of jobs depending on how much business we have to close.”
“We’re trying to come up with creative ideas so our business owners can make the most out of this,” she said.
Restaurants, for example, need to be able to accept and deliver take-out options, while all businesses should accept payments online.
“Being kind to each other, showing empathy and sympathy will help get us through this and we’ll be stronger because of it,” she said.
Without providing specifics, Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency Director Zach Hood said there was “no shortfalls” of hospital bed space and visits to emergency rooms and clinics are “about average” for this time of year.
Sheriff Hoss Mack said his office is continuing to respond to calls for service and enable essential court functions, but is also obligated to follow orders from the state and federal governments. Among those was the cancellation of most court hearings and trials, and this morning’s announcement from the White House to postpone evictions until May.
“We’re trying to slow down, trying to maintain the calm,” he said. “We’ve dealt with hurricanes, the BP oil disaster and we will get through this and we will all be fine, but it takes a spirit of cooperation.”
Family members of the 500-plus inmates in the Baldwin County Corrections Center will still be able to communicate via telephone and video conferencing, but appointments are necessary, he said.
Superintendent Eddie Tyler said school was let out one day earlier than ordered, but beyond that, “we have plans in place for distance learning if this goes on longer,” than expected. Tyler said the work students were sent home with is for practice and enhancement, not for assessments or grading, and students or parents may call the system’s help desk for assistance.
“What we’re trying to do is keep our students and parents connected to the education process,” he said.
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