Matt Bartoli said it was shocking when a Mobile police officer ordered his business to shut down this morning for violating statewide health orders issues as part of Alabama’s response to COVID-19.
Despite Gov. Kay Ivey ordering the vast majority of Alabama’s retail spaces to close on March 27, Bartoli — an owner and operator of Mattress and Furniture for Less on Airport Boulevard — had been continuing on with business as usual. He told Lagniappe Friday he believed his store was considered essential.
“We just assumed that sleep products are super essential. They even shut down a hairdresser in the same shopping center [a week earlier] and we figured they’d see us and decided the hairdresser was not essential and that we were essential,” Bartoli said. “We thought we were following the law. We saw the state’s order and it didn’t say anything about mattresses; it said home furnishings and home decor.”
According to Bartoli, the six-year-old mattress and furniture store he started with his father sells more than just standard bedware. In addition to bedroom, living room and dining room furniture, he said he also sells beds for the disabled through Volunteers of America and to assisted living facilities.
It’s worth noting other local mattress and furniture stores did shut down — with many moving to home delivery and online sales and others trying one-on-one sales in store by appointment only. It’s unclear whether even those limited interactions would be allowed under Ivey’s March 27 order, which directed all “furniture and home furnishings” stores to close to non-employees or shut down entirely.
Either way, Bartoli didn’t think those words were specific enough to his business to shut down operations.
On the day the order was released, Mattress and Furniture for Less made a Facebook post saying it would not be changing its hours, would remain “open all through any lockdowns that may occur” and would be “keeping [its] 50% off all mattresses sale through the end of the hysteria.” Though business slowed due to the statewide “stay-at-home order” issued April 3, Bartoli said he was still seeing some customers.
“I had three customers in the store when the officer pulled up and asked for me to step outside,” Bartoli told reporters later that day. “He said ‘we’re going to have to ask you politely to shut down’ and ‘you’re in violation of the state’s order,’ and I said, ‘well I’m just going to have to refuse.’”
Bartoli said the officer followed him inside and he told him multiple times that unless he had a warrant he would need to leave. After the officer stepped outside to make a call, Bartoli said he felt “a moment of clarity” and complied with the request to shut down his store.
Bartoli, who said he supports the police in general, told Lagniappe he knew the officer personally. He described him as “very professional,” adding that he was “never disrespectful or rude” and even declined to issue the business a citation for refusing to comply with the order.
Still, Bartoli was concerned to be asked to close up his store at all.
“I feel like my rights have been violated. I never thought this would happen in the country I live in, especially the city I live in. We live in the South and people are supposed to be all about freedom,” he said. “People act like they’re just OK with all these businesses being shut down because a few people might survive the virus, but it just doesn’t seem logical to me. That’s just my opinion, but I’m sure there’s a lot of people who feel the same way, especially after how long this has been drawn out.”
Bartoli said he isn’t sure how he’ll proceed from a business standpoint, though even if stores remain shuttered through the end of Ivey’s current stay-at-home order on May 1, he believes he’ll be able to stay afloat. He also said that several people have reached out offering to buy from him once stores reopen.
Though he didn’t address Bartoli’s situation specifically, Public Safety Director James Barber confirmed Friday that officers from the Mobile Police Department are enforcing state health orders, violations of which are considered a misdemeanor offense under the state of emergency Ivey declared in March.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has also issued guidance clarifying that law enforcement officers have the authority under state law and citations could range anywhere from $25 to $500. Barber also said officers are able to arrest violators who are non-compliant, though the city has been trying to avoid that.
“[These orders] can be enforced by our officers, but if you recall, early on in this crisis we sought an alternative means to custodial arrest,” Barber said. “At that point, if they refuse to comply they can receive a summons to court or they can be taken into custody by the officer.”
Mayor Sandy Stimpson also indicated there had been some confusion among other business owners about what services are and are not considered essential under the state health orders. He said his administration has reviewed all types of businesses to see if any have “fallen through the cracks.”
To make sure there’s no confusion, Stimpson said the city has sought clearer guidance from Montgomery.
“We’ve weighed in with the governor about identifying some of the businesses that have had questions [like that],” he said during a news conference Friday. “We’re hoping there will be a more definitive answer to that, so the businesses will know whether they are allowed to remain open.”
That clarity could become needed as the state continues to evaluate what, if any, businesses could safely reopen in the coming weeks to lessen the economic impact of the outbreak and the state’s response to it. Alabama is projected to hit its peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths this weekend.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, there were 4,572 confirmed cases, 146 reported deaths and 594 hospitalizations throughout the state as of 2 p.m., April 18.
*Editors Note: The original version of this story stated ADPH was reporting 151 deaths in the state of Alabama, which was accurate at the time. On Saturday, however, ADPH released a statement saying new information resulted in that number be lowered to 146. Up to date figures from ADPH can be found here.
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