Local leaders are no longer considering further reductions to the operational capacity of essential businesses but are instead now “strongly recommending” employees and shoppers wear face coverings.
Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold signed a health order Wednesday “highly recommending” customers and employees in grocery and retail stores wear some type of protective face covering like bandanas or cottage industry masks in all retail settings. He did note that medically certified masks like the N95 respirator aren’t necessary and should be reserved for health care workers.
“We do not want you to use personal protective equipment unless your doctor has recommended it for you, but we would like you to use whatever covering you have. It can be a bandana, it can be homemade — you can have some fun with it,” Eichold said during a news conference Wednesday. “When you get out of your car and walk into the retail operation, please cover your face to help protect others and protect yourself. And all retailers, please have everybody in your facility wear a mask.”
As Lagniappe has reported, Eichold previously “suggested” shoppers wear some type of “cottage industry” face mask or covering when visiting stores, though it was not in a formal health order. However, it doesn’t seem Wednesday’s “strong recommendation” will be enforced.
According to the order, it will go into effect countywide on Friday, April 17, at 8 a.m. — just ahead of Alabama’s projected peak of COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, officials clarified that the face coverings aren’t required by law and MCHD would not be enforcing its recommendation as such.
Some businesses, such as Whole Foods on Airport Blvd., are already enforcing face-covering requirements as store policy.
The recommendation to use face coverings follows guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] earlier this month primarily as a way to stop people who may already be infected from spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. According to MCHD, those infected with the virus can spread it before ever showing symptoms.
MCHD officials have made it clear they cannot provide face coverings for the general public, but according to epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree, face coverings can be made fairly easily with a number of materials.
In a video shared on MCHD’s Facebook Thursday, Murphree gives examples and instructions on how to make simple face coverings from a number of household items like rubber bands, bandanas, dishrags and paper towels.
In addition to face coverings, health officials are still recommending that shoppers and retail employees wash their regularly, practice social distancing and allow at least six feet between each patron inside of stores.
The recommendation to wear face coverings comes after public officials seemed to walk back the idea of implementing “more stringent” measures to reduce continued overcrowding in local stores.
Earlier this week, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the “Unified Command Group,” which includes himself, Eichold and Mobile County Commission Merceria Ludgood, had been considering further restrictions on how many customers local grocery and “big box” stores can allow inside at one time.
A statewide shutdown of “non-essential” businesses went into effect March 27 as part of Alabama’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but last week officials in Mobile took steps to regulate the operations of the grocery stores and bigbox retailers that are still being allowed to operate.
Currently, the businesses are only allowed to have 20 percent of their normal occupancy in their stores at once — a limitation some chains had already implemented as a corporate practice nationwide. On Monday, Stimpson said the Unified Command was discussing reducing that to 10 percent and requiring department stores to only allow customers access to a finite list of “essential retail items.”
A draft order was composed and circulated among local leaders but was never formalized.
A day after the possible restrictions were reported, a spokesperson said the city of Mobile had “moved away” from the idea. On Wednesday, an official from MCHD said there is currently no recommendation to reduce the customer capacity or allowable purchases for stores throughout Mobile County.
It should be noted those possible restrictions — especially on what customers are allowed to buy — received significant pushback from residents as well as criticism from some other local officials.
In a statement shared on social media Tuesday, Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said the idea of limiting what customers are able to buy seems to be “an infringement of basic individual rights.”
“It is not the responsibility of the government to decide for individuals what might be an essential or non-essential need,” Hudson wrote, adding that she also did not support any further reductions on stores’ operational capacities. “Such a restriction, I believe, could create an atmosphere of panic and further exacerbate tendencies to overbuy essential items due to fear of access and availability.”
Commission President Jerry Carl, who also serves on Mobile County’s Board of Health, said on social media earlier this week that he had received several calls, texts and messages with citizens concerned about the now-abandoned plans to put countywide restrictions on stores.
Carl, who is currently running for Alabama District 1 Congressional seat, said he recognizes the importance of limiting u interactions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but would prefer to see that happen through personal responsibility instead of additional government regulation.
“We can not keep pushing this idea of limiting people’s civil liberties at the expense of our Constitutional rights. I will not stand for this — not now or ever in the future,” Carl said. “True leadership is about positive plans for the future, not leading with fear! We are going to get businesses in South Alabama back open soon, and we will rebuild stronger than ever.”
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