By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey issued a mandatory statewide mask order on Wednesday, requiring Alabamians to cover their mouths and noses when out in public and in close contact with others.
The order goes into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday and ends July 31.
Ivey cited the growing number of COVID-19 cases in recent days and the increased hospitalizations that are straining the state’s medical resources.
“I still believe that this is going to be a difficult order to enforce and I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate, and yet I also know with all my heart that the numbers and the data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction,” Ivey said during a press conference at the State Capitol.
“You shouldn’t have to be ordered to do what’s in your best interest and in the best interest of those you know and love,” she added. “Once again, I’m calling on everyone – everyone – in our state to practice personal responsibility and wear a mask.”
Under state law, those who do not comply with public health orders could face a $500 fine or even jail time, but Ivey said that was not the goal of implementing such an order.
“We’re certainly not asking our sheriffs and police officers to go out looking for those not wearing a mask and arrest them, but we are asking everyone to do a better job practicing social distancing, personal hygiene and wearing a face mask,” Ivey said.
State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said he wholeheartedly agrees with the new order and that wearing face coverings is the best action citizens can take to stop the spread of coronavirus until a vaccine is developed.
“We really don’t have a lot of other options at this time,” Harris said. “Face coverings will prevent disease transmissions. We don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have highly effective treatments, but we do have the ability to prevent person-to-person spread from occurring.”
This new order comes as Alabama recorded 40 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest one-day death count since the outbreak began.
As of Wednesday, 1,136 deaths from COVID-19 and 56,441 confirmed cases have been reported in the state. More than 18,000 of the cases have been reported within the last two weeks. Harris said that preliminary numbers show the rate of positive tests has increased from the Fourth of July week from 14% to now around 16-17%.
There are currently 7,291 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Who has to wear a mask:
- Anyone in a public space that comes in close contact with another person, specifically within six-feet of another person.
- When inside a space open to the public
- When in a vehicle operated by a transportation service.
- When in an outdoor public space where 10 or more people are gathered.
Ivey’s order exempts those who can’t wear a mask out of “practical necessity” and list these examples:
- Children 6 or younger.
- People with certain medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing a facial covering.
- When eating and drinking.
- During medical and dental procedures.
- When confirming a person’s identity for security or screening purposes.
- When exercising while maintain a six-feet separation from others.
- While swimming in a pool or lake, but should still maintain six-feet separation.
- When communicating with an audience and for certain essential job functions.
- When attending a constitutionally protected activity such as voting or attending a religious service.
Some state leaders, however, do not agree with the new face mask order.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said in an emailed statement that the new order is “an overstep that infringes upon the property rights of business owners and the ability of individuals to make their own health decisions.”
“In addition, it imposes a one-size-fits-all, big government requirement on counties that currently have low to moderate infection rates and little need for such a mandate,” Ainsworth said. “Masks should be worn to combat further outbreaks, and while I admire Gov. Ivey’s leadership and her on-going efforts, I also believe a statewide order is the wrong way to go about encouraging their use.”
Unless extended, the mask order will end before K-12 schools begin classes next month.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey told the Alabama State Board of Education Tuesday that it could not mandate students wear masks. The orders have to come either from Ivey or Harris, local school boards or local ordinances. As of Tuesday, about one-fourth of public school students were under mask ordinances, Mackey said.
Ivey said on Wednesday that it will depend on how case numbers look going into August before she decides whether to extend the order and require face masks in schools.
Dr. Donald Williamson, who heads the Alabama Hospital Association, warned on Tuesday that Alabama is headed for a “potential disaster” with increasing daily case counts and a shrinking number of empty beds in hospitals.
More people later this week will likely start filling up hospitals because of activities linked to the July 4 holiday, Williamson said during a Facebook live video call with U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, and all but 13% of the state’s intensive care beds already are full.
Ivey and Harris acknowledged that stricter action could be taken, such as issuing another mandatory stay-at-home order and shuttering businesses. However, Ivey said she didn’t want to “go there” unless no other options are available.
“We’re frequently asked, ‘Does the economy need to be shut down?’ and the answer is, no, not if people cooperate with the orders we have in place,” Harris said.
Ivey has been hesitant to implement a statewide mask order in past weeks and instead has stressed the need for Alabamians to take personal responsibility and strongly encouraged individuals to maintain social distance and wear face masks when out in public.
Several municipalities and counties around the state have already implemented their own face mask requirements.
Walmart announced it will be requiring face masks in its more than 5,000 stores, including Sam’s Club stores, on Wednesday. It’s the largest retailer to implement a mask requirement.