By Gabriel Tynes and Jason Johnson
As Southeastern states including Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina have begun easing restrictions on small businesses and attractions in what some consider hasty decisions to reopen economies after shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday she is still gathering data and opinions from her Coronavirus Task Force, and gave no indication she would reach a decision about reopening before the end of the week.
Further, Ivey said the stay-at-home order she imposed until April 30 remains in effect, while she has embraced recommendations from the Trump Administration to wait until there has been a 14-day decline in positive virus tests before easing social distancing and other restrictions.
At a press conference with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and other members of her cabinet, Ivey expressed concerns that the availability of widespread testing remains inadequate and she would be reluctant to ease restrictions until the state has more data, or is able to better respond to future outbreaks of the virus should they occur.
“Our first priority is the health of our people and getting our COVID-19 numbers down so we can consider going back to work,” Ivey said. “We have an executive committee meeting of the Coronavirus Task Force … and that committee will be receiving all of the ideas coming in and we will have a very definite, specific time table of what, when and how businesses can open and we’ll do that as soon as we can.”
As Ivey noted, President Donald Trump unveiled guidance Friday for governors around the country on how to best ease public health restrictions that have limited economic activity and public movement.
Trump’s “Opening Up America Again” guidelines are broken down into three phases that would gradually permit more activity as regional outbreaks of COVID-19 were brought under control. The first two phases continue to recommend restrictions on some economic and recreational activity and the third would remove those restrictions altogether.
Under the guidance, one of the benchmarks that could indicate whether a state is prepared to move into a phased reopening is a sustained “decrease in reported cases” and a “decrease in reports of influenza-like illnesses” over a 14-day period. Other factors were also included.
It also recommends that states gradually reopening their economies should have already established a “robust testing program for at-risk health care workers, including emerging antibody testing.”
But while both Ivey and Harris acknowledged neighboring states that are already easing restrictions, they said they were uncomfortable doing so in Alabama while data on the virus remains inconclusive.
“Some states are opening sooner than others, but every governor is responsible for reading the numbers and doing what they think is best for their state,” Ivey said. “We’re not testing enough yet. We’re doing a little less than 1 percent of the population and we need to do a whole lot more testing to get up to speed.”
Harris said the state stood at just more than 5,100 confirmed cases Tuesday, with 167 confirmed death statewide, but when looking at a decline in new cases, “there’s not a set number we would use” as a benchmark to know when to reopen the economy.
“I think we want to feel comfortable that we can test people when they need to be tested,” he said. “No state has really solved this problem yet but someday in the future, we would like testing to be available just like any other testing is available like a rapid strep test or a blood glucose test.”
Still, Harris said widespread, on-demand test availability would not in and of itself be a determining factor so much as the ability to respond to outbreaks “where we have multiple cases reported to get those people tested as quickly as possible and to do contact tracing on those people as quickly as possible.”
Ivey said her task force is working with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), hospitals and private labs to increase the availability of testing but until it’s at a level she determines is adequate, “we can’t reopen.”
According to Harris, there is regular testing occurring in 57 of Alabama’s 67 counties, though not all counties have the supplies to perform tests every day. Ivey said Wednesday the state is working to set up new testing facilities and announced drive-thru facilities had been activated in Adamsville and Montgomery through partnerships with Walmart and Quest Diagnostics.
Data collected by ADPH indicates that, since March 13, nearly 40,000 Alabamaians have been tested for COVID-19 using the nasopharyngeal swab tests that can confirm whether someone is actively infected with the disease in around 24 hours. The true number of tests performed is likely higher because ADPH did not initially collect data about negative test results.
There’s also been an unknown number of blood tests performed, which can identify the antibodies a patient’s body produces to fight a COVID-19 infection. The city of Mobile has conducted hundreds of these tests on its own employees as well as first responders in the surrounding area, but antibody tests require follow-up testing in order to confirm an active case.
‘REOPEN ALABAMA RESPONSIBLY’
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and State Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, released a plan on Friday to incrementally reopen Alabama’s economy using a timeline between “immediately” and May 15. The 157-page report by Ainsworth’s Small Business Emergency Task Force provides guidance and recommendations for small businesses that were deemed “non-essential” by Gov. Ivey last month and subsequently closed via a state health order as the pandemic escalated.
At a news conference, Ainsworth said social distancing and other health practices have resulted in lower projections of the pandemic’s effects and if the report’s recommendations are followed, he believed most businesses and destinations could be reopened safely within the next month.
Garrett acknowledged the “devastating” impact the pandemic has had on public health, but also emphasized its effect on “the livelihoods and financial securities of hundreds of thousands of businesses in the state, and millions of people in the state,” and “mortality rates and health impacts from dire financial crises.”
“In speaking with small business owners in their dire circumstances, some of them are already on the verge of bankruptcy, some have filed for bankruptcy and some are just waiting to see how long they can survive,” he said. “What came clear to us is how bad they want to open, and they want to open safely.”
Their report warns the state’s general fund budget could see a $400 million “major loss” in tax revenue, while the Education Trust Fund stands to take a $1.3 billion hit “if income and sales tax drop by 20 percent … A decline of this magnitude would have a detrimental impact on Alabama’s current and future workforce, economy, public health and education system.”
Ainsworth noted the Small Business Administration’s $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program has already been exhausted of funds, unemployment claims are at “an all time high” and small businesses have been put at an unfair disadvantage compared to big-box stores during the pandemic, which have allowed to operate because they are deemed “essential”
However, Ainsworth said the committee “believes there is a way to safely reopen the Alabama economy and get people working responsibly.”
The report suggests beaches can be reopened as soon as May 1, so long as social distancing can be enforced, the size of the groups on the beach is restricted to 10 or fewer and beach activities are limited to general recreation such as swimming, sunbathing, walking, running and fishing.
Restaurants — not bars — would be allowed to resume in-person dining immediately if they commit to “limiting any interaction between employees and customers, as well as customers with other customers,” while also frequently sanitizing common surfaces. Ainsworth said table groups would be limited to six people and tables must be at least six feet apart.
Retail stores would be able to reopen immediately, provided they impose the same 50 percent capacity restrictions as big-box stores. Employees’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, is recommended but not required and retailers should provide hand sanitizer and warning signs for patrons who enter.
“Close contact services” such as hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, tanning and waxing salons and tattoo parlors can reopen immediately but employees must wear PPE, appointments must be made, the number of customers inside the store at one time must be limited and no one can wait in waiting areas.
Childcare facilities can reopen immediately provided they follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and limit the number of children to 11 or fewer.
The report also provides guidelines for health care services, agriculture, manufacturing, sporting events, entertainment venues, gyms and other industries and businesses, and may include such measures as taking employees’ temperatures, limiting contact between employees and customers and limiting cash transactions.
But Ainsworth also said the key to reopening safely would be the increased availability of COVID-19 testing as well as ADPH’s ability to perform more contact tracing in order to test those who come into contact with positive COVID-19 patients.
MORE RECOMMENDATIONS, FINANCIAL RELIEF FORTHCOMING
Before making a recommendation, Ivey is still awaiting reports from Alabama’s members of Congress, including First District Rep. Bradley Byrne. On Monday, Byrne said a decreasing number of positive tests does not mean “we can totally reopen our society and economy by totally ending social distancing.”
“My recommendations, which are informed by input from business and community leaders from around the district, will follow the federal guidelines for a phased reopening of our region,” Byrne said in a statement. “My recommendations start from the federal guidelines’ metrics for how to gauge when you have truly passed the peak and then have a 14-day period of reduction in the number of new daily cases. The guidelines also call for our hospitals to be able to operate on a non-crisis basis and for a robust testing program for our frontline health care workers. The initial daily case numbers running up to the actual peak here in Alabama are promising, but we will have to see if we can get that two week sustained experience of reducing case numbers. It’s pretty clear we will get there well before Memorial Day, unless the case numbers make a significant change for the worse this week or next.”
Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, serves on Byrne’s reopening task force. On Tuesday, he expressed frustration with rising unemployment numbers reported by the Alabama Department of Labor over the past month, as the data suggests Baldwin County will be economically impacted more than most counties.
At Ivey’s press conference Tuesday, Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced more than 306,000 people had filed for unemployment since mid-March, compared to 130,000 for all of 2019.
“Our committee has a final call this afternoon where all our feedback will be formulated and communicated to the governor Thursday,” Lawson said. “Understanding when things open back up will be critical and how many of our workers can come back off the sidelines will be critical to us understanding where our opportunities are moving forward. A large percentage of businesses feel like 48 hours is all they would need [to reopen safely] and that is pretty telling. Hopefully we have seen a peak of [unemployment] filings and then hopefully there’s a reopening of the economy and the beaches. And we can see [unemployment] numbers start to decrease as folks are pulled back into the workforce.”
Separately, Byrne also acknowledged “the frustration” with virus testing, but said the federal government has made strides with testing health care workers and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services anticipates having the capacity ”to test 4 million people a week by the end of May, four times what we can do now, and the figure needed to robustly test the general population.”
“I anticipate the governor will begin reopening Alabama next month,” Byrne concluded. “It won’t be like flicking on a light switch, however. It will be more like gradually turning up a light using a dimmer. That’s good because a rapid return to normal risks an outbreak, which will cause us to return to where we are now.”
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who has been working with other members of Congress to replenish depleted economic stimulus funds, applauded Ivey’s approach today, saying the “importance of having more testing capacity than we currently have and putting our citizens’ health care needs first are spot-on.”
“We must ensure we can sustain the good progress we have made on the healthcare crisis, but we can only do so if we have a strong testing regime in place, reduce cases for two consecutive weeks, and continue social distancing practices before we can responsibly and safely reopen our economy for business,” Jones said. “We still have a long road ahead to get back to normal, both in Alabama and across the country. We all want to get there as soon as possible, but we need to do it in a way that follows the data and the guidance of our public health officials. I understand the hardships our businesses and workers continue to face as we work to tackle the health crisis. In Congress, I am continuing to advocate for additional resources for our workers and small businesses, as well as our health care providers, local governments and farmers. Providing sufficient relief now will help our businesses stay afloat longer and not feel pressure to reopen before it’s safe to do so.”
MOBILE COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
Locally, leaders in Mobile seem to be behind Ivey’s decision to wait for more data to come in about the number of new COVID-19 tests, hospitalizations and deaths. On Monday, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said local leaders have heard the growing “hue and cry about reopening” the city and the state as soon as possible but he believes “we’re not there yet.”
“It does look like the cases are maybe on the decline but it’s too early to declare victory,” Stimpson said. “We ask that you continue to abide by the hygiene practices we’ve been using: Don’t touch your face, wash your hands frequently, wear your face mask and stay home when you can.”
He also noted, based on conversations with administrators of local hospitals, there is still plenty of capacity for treating severe cases of COVID-19 in terms of available ventilators and intensive care beds. Countywide, he said fewer than 50 percent are currently being used.
City officials have also continued to work with local businesses on how they might be able to safely reopen. Stimpson said “reopening” would look different for different parts of the local economy. For example, small retail stores that can properly social distance would likely be able to resume business faster than say a large restaurant or a salon.
More importantly, the city’s only standalone public health restrictions have been a local stay-at-home order and a nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Because the state’s restrictions and a countywide ban on in-person dining superseded the city’s authority, Stimpson said he plans to wait for those to be withdrawn before the city lifts any of its orders.
Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold has indicated that reopening the economy could be a gradual process. Even if businesses are allowed to resume their normal activity, he said the social distancing and extra hygiene precautions could remain part of life for a while.
“Re-entry will not be an off and on process,” Eichold said. “It will be slow and 6-foot distancing, limiting the number of customers in a retail store, and the wearing of face covers for workers and customers will remain for weeks. Remember, we are still getting cases reported daily and there is no vaccine.”
The Mobile County Health Department has indicated Eichold has been working as part of the “unified command” with Stimpson’s office and Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood to review the recent re-entry guidelines proposed at the state and federal level.
As businesses in Mobile do start to reopen, testing for COVID-19 will probably be something that many pursue in order to make sure employees healthy and ensure customers their establishments are safe to patronize.
Though there are still some logistical questions, Stimpson said the city is open to the idea of using its “limited resources” and industry connections to help businesses test for COVID-19 antibodies as they begin to reopen.
The Mobile City Council agreed on Tuesday to spend more than $84,000 on 6,000 rapid serum test kits that will be used at two testing sites the city has set up at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and Infirmary Health’s Diagnostic and Medical clinic.
There’s still no definitive answers on how many tests the city would or could be able to provide or how exactly it would go about selecting one private business over another, but with two testing sites already operational, Stimpson said it could be an opportunity for the city to help provide a “sense of comfort.”
“Some of our workforce have more exposure to other people than others, and trying to put a priority on who you’d test is not an easy thing to do,” he said. “But, we do know it would be helpful and to the degree we have resources, we probably would select some on a trial basis to see who we could help.”
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