Life for many people across Alabama slowed to a near-standstill Tuesday as the fight against the coronavirus COVID-19 began to look increasingly like preparations for war.
Local schools canceled classes, stadiums and gymnasiums were empty and some shelves in local stores were empty as government officials urged people to stay home — and warned them that they’re in for a siege that could be long and costly for nearly everybody.
“We don't want to get into another Great Recession or Depression, but this has the potential to be worse than 2008,” U.S. Sen Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, said in a telephone press conference Tuesday morning.
Alabama had 39 confirmed cases of virus as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, including one in St. Clair County. But no one expects numbers to stay low for long.
COVID-19 has infected more than 80,000 people in China since it emerged late last year, killing thousands. Cases have surged in Italy, Iran and other countries in recent weeks, and public officials are worried the trajectory of the illness in the United States is similar to what Italy has seen.
With 21 cases of the virus confirmed in Jefferson County and smaller numbers in neighboring Shelby and Tuscaloosa counties, Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday ordered restrictions on six counties in the Birmingham metro area, St. Clair County among them. Assemblies of more than 25 people were prohibited. Restaurants and bars were banned from serving anyone but take-out customers. Private schools were ordered closed. So, too, were day care centers — a potential problem for parents seeking help now that all the state’s public schools have also been ordered to close no earlier than Thursday.
State health officer Scott Harris said a similar order could be issued for other counties, or statewide, if local efforts to curb contagion prove unsuccessful.
"Everyone in every county not affected by these orders should go ahead and implement these orders," Harris said.
Those orders would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. But even before Tuesday, local governments and organizations were moving rapidly into an emergency mode.
The Jacksonville City Council held an emergency meeting to set aside $50,000 to fight the virus and to clarify the line of succession in the event the mayor can’t work. Oxford’s council on Tuesday granted emergency powers to its mayor, giving him powers to hire workers and buy supplies without the usual legal formalities. Anniston canceled or postponed a host of local events.
Tourism took a hard hit. Organizers of the Sunny King Criterium, a bicycle race that brings thousands of visitors to Anniston every April, postponed their event and said they hoped to reschedule it for fall. The April race at Talladega Superspeedway — one of the area’s claims to fame, drawing a crowd of more than 100,000 — was also put on hold.
Public officials said they were aware of the damage the emergency measures could do to the economy. But they also argued that the state and the country are in a crucial stage in fighting the outbreak, hoping not to stop the virus entirely but merely to slow it down to stop a tsunami of severely ill patients from swamping hospitals.
Statewide and nationally, people expressed growing doubt about the reported numbers of coronavirus patients, citing the difficulty many people have in getting tests done. While state health officials said Alabama is able to test patients in 24 to 72 hours, officials at Jacksonville State University waited from Thursday to Monday for results on patients affiliated with the university.
The state had six drive-in testing centers set up as of Tuesday, Harris said. The goal, announced earlier in the week, is to have 20 centers.
Calhoun County wasn’t on Harris’s list of counties with state drive-in testing centers, but a drive-in testing site was in operation near Regional Medical Center in Anniston on Tuesday. Workers at the site confirmed they were testing for coronavirus and said that a doctor’s order is required for testing there. Attempts to reach officials of RMC for comment on the site were not successful Tuesday.
Jones said the limit on testing now is not due to the availability of tests but rather a shortage of swabs used by doctors to collect samples. He urged people to avoid seeking tests if they aren’t sick with symptoms of the virus. He said a friend of his hasn’t been able to get a test because of the backlog of requests.
"She's got symptoms, she's got fever, and she can't get a test," Jones said.
While hospital workers braced for a surge of patients, people outside the medical field looked for ways to fix the downstream problems created by the new focus on “social distancing.”
Major retail chains announced they’d be closed for longer hours, partly to restock shelves picked clean by panicked shoppers. Alabama’s Department of Labor announced that unemployment benefits would be available for people put out of work by the virus — either because they’d been laid off, because they’re caring for a family member, or because they’re sick themselves.
Congress weighed a stimulus package, to help both businesses and workers. Jones on Tuesday said he hoped lawmakers would agree to postpone the tax filing deadline until August and approve direct federal subsidies for workers put out of their jobs by the pandemic.
Closer to home, local agencies struggled to figure out the logistics of a widespread institutional shutdown. Schools often leave their lunchrooms open during the summer, to make sure kids on free or reduced lunch get enough to eat; the sudden school shutdown left school officials looking for ways to keep serving, but without having kids gather in a cafeteria.
Anniston school nutrition program director Ashley Alexander said Tuesday that Anniston schools would keep up their lunch program through meals ready for pickup at community centers and boys-and-girls-clubs around the city.
“They will be fed,” Alexander said.
Star photographer Stephen Gross contributed reporting.