By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey announced her new “safer at home” order on Tuesday, allowing a gradual reopening of parts of the state’s economy and will replace the current stay-at-home order that is set to expire at 5 p.m. Thursday.
This new order still encourages individuals to stay at home and social distance themselves from others whenever possible, but allows all retail stores to open as long as they remain at or below 50% their maximum occupancy rate. Some businesses may open subject to sanitation and social-distancing guidelines.
Ivey emphasized that this is just the first phase of a multi-phase process for reopening the state and urged Alabamians to keep taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
“We’re still seeing the virus spread and all of our people are susceptible to the infection,” Ivey said. “….We must continue to be vigilant in our social distancing both today and for the foreseeable future.”
Elective medical procedures will now be allowed to resume, Ivey and State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said. The state’s beaches will also reopen, but gatherings of 10 people or more are still prohibited.
Entertainment venues and athletic facilities will still remain closed as well as close-contact services like barber shops, hair salons, nail salons and tattoo shops. Bars will still be closed and restaurants will still be limited to delivery or curbside service.
Harris said that the relatively flat rate of new case seen in recent days has been an encouraging factor in deciding to go forward with this first phase of reopening. Newly diagnosed cases in Alabama are now around 200 per day.
There has also been no shortage of ventilators ICU bed capacity and overall hospital capacity has not been strained, Harris said.
“It’s definitely reasonable to begin a reopening like this,” Harris said. “We do have adequate ICU beds and the ability to care for people within the four walls of the hospital and have not needed the alternative care sites that we had prepared for. So all these things are very encouraging to us.”
Harris said Alabama has met two of the White House reopening criteria regarding symptoms and hospital capacity but has yet to see a sustained 14-day decline in cases, which is why certain entertainment venues will remain closed, he said.
Ivey and Harris are also recommending that people wear face coverings when going out in public but it is not a state requirement to do so. Birmingham’s city council approved a city ordinance on Tuesday that will require everyone to wear face coverings when in public starting May 1.
The “Safer at Home” order starts at 5 p.m. Thursday and is set to end May 15.
What will open:
All retail stores open subject to 50% occupancy rates, social-distancing and sanitation rules;
Businesses may open subject to sanitation and social-distancing guidelines; certain higher-risk businesses and activities remain closed;
Beaches open, no gathering of more than 10 people, 6-feet of separation required;
Elective medical procedures can resume;
What will still be closed:
Entertainment venues including night clubs, theaters and bowling alleys;
Fitness centers and commercial gyms;
Close-contact services including hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo services.
What stays the same:
Non-work gatherings are limited to fewer than 10 people and six-feet rules apply. “Drive-in” gatherings still allowed if participants stay in their cars;
Senior citizen centers programming still suspended except for meals via curbside pick-up or delivery;
Education institutions remain closed for in-person instruction;
Child care facilities limited to no more than 12 children per room;
Hospitals’ and nursing homes’ must restrict visitation;
Restaurants, bars and breweries are still limited to take-out, curbside or delivery.
Harris said obtaining enough testing materials is still an ongoing issue but that his staff is continuing to look for channels to find more kits. Harris and Ivey last week said not enough testing had been done to know the scope of the virus in Alabama.
According to information from the Alabama Department of Public Health, as of Tuesday morning more than 74,000 people had been tested for COVID-19. While that’s only about 1% of the population, the ADPH number doesn’t capture all testing done at private labs.
Contact tracing those who have already tested positive for COVID-19 is an important part in gauging the progression of the virus in the state, Harris said. Each person who has tested positive so far has been contacted by ADPH to learn about their condition, what environment they live in and their workplace conditions.
“What all states have identified is that the way to really get ahead of this is to make sure you’re doing this on the scale that you need to do,” Harris said.
In order to properly conduct contact tracing efforts, Harris said the state will need hundreds of more workforce just for the task of reaching out to those infected.
“Until we have a vaccine or at least an effective treatment we’ll have to scale that up quite a bit for a while,” Harris said.
Church gatherings and funerals will remain prohibited under the order. Former First Baptist Church in Montgomery pastor Jay Wolf said during the press conference that Alabama has not met the CDC requirements in allowing church services to resume as normal.
He still encourages Alabamians to attend virtual services and said reopening places of worship will be gradual.
“It will be a process, not an event,” Wolf said.
Ivey said she realizes that this may not be the kind of news some people were hoping to hear about on reopening the state, but it is the best middle-ground option for protecting the safety of all.
“We know that what we are announcing today will please some and will make others frustrated that we’re not going further at this time,” Ivey said. “But our job must be always to find the right balance. Keeping our people safe and healthy while also focusing on the economic health of the state.”
There were growing calls in recent weeks from some of Ivey’s fellow elected Republicans to let businesses reopen and get people back to work. In mid-April, a task force led by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, recommended allowing small retailers, restaurants and other businesses to reopen.
Ivey’s new order drew praise from several Republicans anxious to get the state back to business.
“Thousands of small business owners and employees across the state will feel relief as they open their doors for business once again, but, like all of us, they will need to use strict social distancing guidelines, safety precautions, and simple common sense,” Ainsworth said.
“Allowing our retail businesses to reopen gives hope to the owners and employees and has the additional benefit of reducing crowds that have congregated in big box stores,” House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter said in a statement. “Authorizing elective surgeries to resume will allow both urban and rural hospitals to stop the financial hemorrhaging that resulted from the pandemic.”
“Alabama faces a long road back to the historic economy we enjoyed just a few weeks ago, but Gov. Ivey’s revised public health order allows us to take the first step on that important journey,” Ledbetter said.
Small retailers for weeks have said the public health orders that closed them but kept their big-box competitors open were unfair.
More than 300,000 Alabamians have filed coronavirus-related unemployment claims since mid-March when businesses began to close. State Finance Director Kelly Butler said this week he anticipates a drop-off of as much as $1 billion in tax revenue due to the outbreak.