By Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
In a first step toward “reopening” Alabama’s economy, Gov. Kay Ivey announced plans this week to let her current stay-at-home order expire on April 30 — giving retail businesses as well as public and private beaches the green light to reopen, with some restrictions, later this week.
Ivey’s new “Safer at Home” order is part of a broader plan to reopen businesses in phases after many across the state have remained shuttered for more than a month due to health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new, less-restrictive order will take effect at 5 p.m., April 30, and run through May 15.
Though no timetable was given, Ivey said the state would continue to re-evaluate and consider easing other restrictions as things move forward.
“I believe all businesses are essential. No matter the size, if you’re conducting commerce and providing a paycheck, you have tremendous value to our state,” Ivey said. “Reopening an economy is not like flipping a light switch or snapping your finger. Just like we eased into this current stay-at-home order, we’ll also be thoughtful and careful as we ease back into social interactions and our regular business.”
Despite the rollback of some public health restrictions, Ivey stressed that “the threat of COVID-19 in Alabama is not over.” With cases continuing to increase and ground left to be gained in the state’s testing capabilities, she said the disease is something Alabamians should continue to take seriously.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the decision to resume some types of business activity this week was made because Alabama’s numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths seem to be stabilizing.
He said the average number of new cases per day has been “relatively flat” at around 200 and also noted that, despite grim forecasts last month, state hospitals have yet to face shortages of beds, ICU units or ventilators.
Harris and other members of Ivey’s coronavirus task force accepted recommendations on how best to reopen the state from a number of sources including the Alabama Legislature’s small business committee and all seven of the state’s representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He said guidance from the White House was also considered when deciding when and how to move forward.
“We feel really good about some of the [White House] criteria related to hospital capacity and symptoms, but we haven’t met the criteria for a 14-day sustained decline in new confirmed cases recommended in those guidelines,” Harris said. “That’s why we’re not proceeding to the full phase one opening, which suggested opening entertainment venues, gyms and a number of things we’re not doing at this time.”
In many ways, the Safer at Home order reverts back to less-restrictive public health guidelines established prior to Ivey’s April 4 stay-at-home order.
Beginning April 30 at 5 p.m., residents will no longer only be allowed to leave home for essential activities, though the public is still “strongly encouraged” to limit social interactions, wear face coverings around others and practice good hygiene.
Non-work-related gatherings of 10 persons or more, as well as gatherings of any size that cannot maintain at least six feet of separation between participants, are still prohibited under the new order.
Retailers will be able to reopen by Friday, though they’ll have to maintain less than 50 percent of their normal occupancy and make efforts to promote social distancing in their stores. Entertainment venues as well as “close contact services” like gyms, salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, however, will be forced to remain closed for at least two more weeks. Restaurants will still be limited to curbside service as well.
Ivey said her task force would be working with representatives from the restaurant industry as well as others who are still unable to fully resume services to implement a strategy for reopening “very soon,” though many in those industries have been some of the hardest hit by restrictions related to COVID-19.
According to the Alabama Department of Labor, more than 44,000 workers from the accommodation and food services sector have filed new claims for unemployment insurance since mid-March. Many self-employed barbers, nail technicians and tattoo artists have also struggled to receive those benefits.
Last week, a barber in Mobile opened in defiance of statewide health orders — something several others around the state have done or threatened to do. Joel Edwards said his establishment in West Mobile was fined by the Mobile Police Department and then shut down after reopening again the following day.
Asked about those who might be tempted to reopen their “close contact” businesses against the state’s Safer at Home order, Ivey seemed to suggest that would not be the best idea.
“These are state orders, and if they’re in violation, they’re subject to a $500 fine,” Ivey said. “I would encourage them to rethink that strategy.”
Locally, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has already been communicating with the owners of close contact businesses about how they can safely operate once the state allows them to. He said going forward there will need to be a balance between keeping the public safe and not saddling businesses with burdensome restrictions once they are finally allowed to reopen.
“We’ve got to be very thoughtful about how we allow people to go back to work so that we protect you and also so we protect them. We want to do our dead-level best to make sure we’re not putting onerous restrictions on those who have the opportunity to start back up,” Stimpson said. “I think we’d be remiss if we provide hope by saying businesses can reopen, but at the same time we’re putting shackles on folks to where you really can’t work.”
In addition to retail stores, Ivey’s April 28 order reopens public and private beaches throughout the state, although only to gatherings of up to 10 persons, while “anyone using the beaches must maintain a consistent six-foot distance between himself or herself and all persons from a different household.”
The governor’s order also allows pools at hotels or condos and charter boats to operate under the same restrictions. They must also regularly disinfect frequently used items and surfaces.
Violations of the order are misdemeanors subject to a $500 penalty. Further, the governor’s office warned if there are large-scale failures to comply, or if the new rule leads to increased COVID-19 transmission, the state may be forced to close the beaches again. If it’s successful and the transmission rate continues to decline, additional steps will be taken to loosen restrictions.
The new guidelines do not adopt all the recommendations forwarded by separate task forces headed up by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne. Both sought to release at least some restrictions on dine-in restaurants, personal services and athletic facilities and events.
Still, State Sen. Chris Elliott, a member of Ainsworth’s task force, said he was “pleased” with Ivey’s order as it takes “meaningful steps” that will “put many small businesses back on equal footing with big-box stores, get most employees back to work, safely open Alabama’s beaches and allow our hospitals and doctor’s offices to go back to seeing patients.”
However, he added, “My hope is that both the governor and the state health officer will revisit this order soon as conditions continue to improve so that those businesses still ordered closed can reopen.”
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