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Cases rising in Alabama, but local officials reluctant to mandate masks


Masked shoppers walks into Wal-Mart in Jacksonville past a sign recommending  face coverings. Public health officials in other states have ordered people to wear masks in public to avoid spread of COVID-19.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith talked with other city officials about the possibility of requiring people to wear facemasks in public places. They quickly rejected the idea. 

"We felt like it would be really difficult to enforce," Smith said. "We didn't want to go that far."

Some Alabama cities are rethinking their early decisions on masks as the spread of COVID-19 accelerates across the state. Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed earlier this month issued an executive order requiring masks after the council members in the capitol city voted against a mask ordinance. Montevallo's council voted Monday to impose a mask requirement on its residents. 

Those decisions come against the background of a new surge in cases that seemed to alarm Alabama health and safety experts Thursday. The state's total count of confirmed coronavirus cases neared 33,000 Thursday morning, according to numbers released by the Alabama Department of Public health. More than 2,000 of those cases were found in the previous two days. 

That surge came as the virus also staged a nationwide comeback, with the number of new cases on Thursday hitting a one-day high the country hasn't seen since early April.

"People have been, I think, increasingly alarmed that over the past 10 days, two weeks, we have continued to see marked increases in the number of cases reported." said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious disease at UAB, in a Facebook press conference Thursday.

Marrazzo said the increase probably isn't the result of increased testing, and that the percentage of tests coming back positive is increasing, a change she described as "alarming." She said there's also growing strain on hospitals dealing with new patients. 

Calhoun County has so far missed the full brunt of that surge, but that may be changing. The county had 225 coronavirus cases and five deaths from the virus as of Thursday, placing it among the counties in the state with the lowest per-capita infection rates.

Still, Calhoun County recorded 40 new cases in the past two weeks, the most recorded in any two-week period. And half of those cases were found in the past two days. 

Those cases don't include the results from a Wednesday testing event in Ohatchee, where 127 people showed up to be tested according to Calhoun County EMA director Michael Barton. Those results will likely take days to come back.

"It's still a real and present danger in our community," Barton said Thursday. Barton has warned of a coming surge since last week, when the case count began to pick up. 

Despite the rise, there's little political will to go back to a lockdown of the sort the state saw in April, when local people were under orders to stay home and many businesses were closed because of the virus. That shutdown drove hundreds of thousands of Alabamians onto the unemployment rolls. 

The last few restrictions on businesses — limiting occupancy to prevent spread of the virus — expire in early July. Gov. Kay Ivey has yet to announce what the state will do next. 

Health officials for weeks have stressed mask-wearing as one of the best ways to avoid spreading the virus while doing business in public. The state's latest public health orders don't require that, and mask-wearing is far from universal in public spaces in Calhoun County.  Some states have imposed a mask requirement. Most counties don't have the power to impose mask rules, Barton said. He said only Jefferson and Mobile counties, which have their own health departments similar in structure to the state health department, have that power. 

Local city leaders say they've considered the idea, in some cases weeks ago, and decided it was a non-starter. 

"I think it's a great idea to encourage people to wear masks," said Jack Draper, mayor of Anniston. "Actually mandating it is another thing entirely."

Draper said local cities early on agreed to consult with each other before taking emergency measures. Even though Anniston is the county's largest city, he said, imposing a measure at the city level would affect only a small fraction of the county's residents. 

And Draper said it would be tough to enforce, largely because people would resist it. Other mayors seem to agree.

"People are always telling us things like 'I've got asthma, I can't breathe with a mask,'" said Smith, the Jacksonville mayor. Sorting out legitimate exceptions from excuses and finding an appropriate fine or punishment made a mask ordinance more trouble than it would be worth, Smith said. 

Local officials have always seemed a little unsure of their powers under the pandemic, and perhaps with good reason. Most of the state's pandemic-era restrictions have come from a little-known state health board, under the authority of a 1950s emergency powers law. During the April lockdown, police had the power to cite stay-home scoffers for defying a public health order, an offense that included a fine. Most local police departments issued only warnings.  

Smith said he's pretty sure state law gives him the power, as mayor, to impose a mask order if he decided to. Draper said that under Anniston's government structure, a mask order would likely require a council vote. 

Sherman Guyton, mayor of Gadsden in neighboring Etowah County, said he considered a mask order but was told an opinion from the Alabama attorney general meant such a measure would likely be illegal. 

Etowah County has been much harder hit than Calhoun, with 485 cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths. The county has seen 189 cases in just the past two weeks.

Guyton said that even with the rise in cases and deaths, imposing a mask rule would be difficult, because people have become resistant to the mask-wearing message.

"People don't care," he said. "They just don't care anymore."

Guyton said he tries to set a good example, carrying two masks at all time, and leaving one on his dashboard to disinfect in the sun while he uses the other. He said he went on television earlier this week to again make the pitch for using masks. 

"I said 'Let's try that for two months and see if it will make a difference,'" he said. "It's more serious than you think it is."

Public health experts have been reluctant to wade in on policy decisions, but Marrazzo, the disease specialist, said Thursday that mask orders would likely run into resistance and that a compromise solution — with businesses rigorously requiring patrons to wear masks — might be best. 

She said she hopes people will choose to wear masks, regardless of what the government requires. 

"All I can tell you is that masks are probably one of the best tools we have to prevent the virus from spreading," she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.