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As COVID-19 projections decline, some ask for easing of restrictions

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

While state leaders are making plans for re-opening businesses shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some would like to see at least a few restrictions eased prior to the planned April 30 timeline.

Public health orders in March and April told Alabamians to stay home unless for specific reasons, closed many businesses and put occupancy limits on others, including retailers. While grocery stores can remain open, some smaller retailers had to close.

“The Alabama Retail Association and many of its members don’t understand a public policy that sends the same number of consumers to a smaller group of retailers creating denser crowds,” association President Rick Brown told Alabama Daily News on Friday. “This policy seems at odds with the Alabama Department of Public Health’s stated objective to avoid large gatherings.  

“Our suggestion is to reopen small retail stores with [similar] occupancy restrictions and social distancing standards placed on big box stores.  This will diffuse consumers to more retailers, thus limiting crowds.  An added benefit is that this policy change will invigorate our local economies and keep retail employees employed.”

The public health orders aim to keep people at home to prevent the spreading of the respiratory virus and keep Alabama hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients. As of Monday morning there were 3,611 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 95 reported deaths, with 61 of those 60 confirmed to be from the illness. A total of 437 have been hospitalized statewide, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

A record 106,000 Alabamians applied for unemployment claims in the week of March 29 to April 4. The manufacturing, hospitality and retail sectors all saw more than 10,000 employees file claims. 

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Rosemary Elebash, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, on Friday said that two months ago, her members’ biggest problem was finding enough qualified workers.

“We’ve gone from feast to below famine,” Elebash said. According to a nationwide survey of NFIB members, 92% have been directly impacted by the coronavirus.

Elebash was recently put on a committee formed by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth to make recommendations for re-opening businesses next month. The recommendations will be given to Gov. Kay Ivey April 17.

“I have had many conversations, many conversations, with businesses owners who say, why are the big box stores allowed to open when I never have the crowds those stores do?’” Elebash said. She said they’re willing to follow any health guidelines in an effort to keep customers and employees as safe as possible.

“They will do whatever they need to do to stay safe, but they’d like the opportunity to open like the other stores have remained open.” 

On Friday, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he wrote Ivey a letter asking her as projections about the impact of COVID-19 on Alabama lessen to consider letting some businesses gradually re-open before April 30.

“We need to start putting our foot off the brake now,” Orr told ADN.

His suggestions included allowing some small businesses and retailers to re-open — with guidelines — and resume some out-patient elective surgeries at medical clinics. 

Orr’s not suggesting re-opening bars or restaurants for dine-in service, but did suggest allowing the state’s breweries to make home deliveries. Several other states have made emergency rules allowing for home delivery.

Alabama hasn’t yet seen its COVID-19 cases peak, but projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that last month estimated more than 5,000 deaths in the state now show fewer than 500 through by early August. State-mandated social distancing is largely attributed to the decline.

If the trends continue, it’s time to start letting people get back to work, Orr said.

Ainsworth’s office said the subcommittee to the larger Alabama Small Business Commission will consider issues including how to best ease restrictions on restaurant and store capacity guidelines once state officials say the worst of the coronavirus has passed.

Several members of the subcommittee on Friday said no one has discussed easing restrictions prior to April 30.

“What we’re doing is basically planning for when it happens,” group chairman Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, told ADN. “We’re not trying to get ahead of situation.”

He said when businesses are allowed to re-open, it won’t be as simple as flipping a switch. It will take take several steps to get back to pre-coronavirus operations.

Subcommittee member Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, said people aren’t going to resume normal activities until they feel safe.

He said decisions have to be data driven and will require the availability of COVID-19 testing. 

Alabama’s public and private beaches were closed last month, cutting short the spring break season and closing many hotels and restaurants.

It will be at least another month before the economic impact of business closures and job losses will be on the state’s tax revenue and operating budgets.

“If we’re still closed in May, the likelihood of anyone booking a June vacation is slimmer and slimmer,” Elliott said. “We won’t just lose spring break, but the summer too.

“That’s not just bad for us (on the coast), it’s bad for the entire state.”

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