Heflin’s mayor, a police officer and a sheriff’s deputy have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, all in the days since the three attended a law enforcement appreciation lunch.
The mayor, Rudy Rooks, announced his positive test on Facebook on Saturday. Rooks said City Hall would be closed for “deep cleaning,” and that he and his wife would isolate themselves through Aug. 4.
Cleburne County Sheriff Dennis Green on Friday said a deputy had tested positive for the virus. Heflin police Chief A.J. Benefield said on Tuesday that an officer in his department had tested positive.
While it’s not known how or where any of the three men contracted the virus, all three attended the lunch on July 18 at the Sgt. Maj. Harold Lee Jones Armory in Heflin. The event, organized by volunteers, was attended by nearly a dozen other officers plus supporters and a photographer and reporter from The Anniston Star, about 30 people in all.
Neither Rooks nor the two law enforcement officers have experienced any symptoms, he, Green and Benefield have said.
“We had one to test positive but I’m not going to say that’s where he got it at,” Green said.
In his announcement, Rooks wrote that he had “followed CDC guidelines of social distancing and wearing a face mask. I have practiced hand hygiene and avoided large crowds. But sometimes it just gets past all the precautions you can take.”
Photos from the event show Rooks with a mask in his hand while speaking with other unmasked attendees.
“I wore the mask in, I had it on and off and I kinda practiced social distancing, but I did wear the mask in,” Rooks said on Monday.
In an interview for this story on Tuesday at City Hall, Rooks did not wear a mask while speaking with a reporter who was wearing one.
When reached by phone on Monday Rooks said that according to his physician only one person has to wear a mask in an office setting like the mayor’s office, though that advice appears to conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As long as one of us was wearing it, we’re good. We were practicing our social distancing,” Rooks said, “but when I go out into public I put my mask on.”
According to the CDC, all people 2 years of age or older should wear a cloth face covering in public settings and when around people who don’t live in the same household.
“A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer,” the CDC’s advice says, “but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.”
The Heflin police officer who tested positive found out the results of his test the night of the event, hours after it had been over. That officer appears to have worn a mask throughout the July 18 lunch. The officer was tested because he had been exposed to another officer who had been exposed to the virus previously but ultimately tested negative, Benefield said.
Two other Heflin officers who attended have since tested negative, Benefield said.
Green said on Monday that three deputies attended the event and all three were tested, with only the one positive result. A fourth deputy was also tested who had come into contact with the three who had been at the event; his test was negative according to Green.
The Star staffers who covered the event have since tested negative for the virus. The reporter who interviewed Rooks on Tuesday was seeking a test today; he was masked during the interview.
The lunch took place two days after Gov. Kay Ivey announced a requirement for most people to wear masks whenever they are in public places in contact with others. Some attendees wore masks, though many took them off to eat during the indoor lunch; many people often came within 6 feet of others. The mask order is set to expire Friday unless there is further action at the state level.
The Heflin officer’s positive test result prompted Benefield on Tuesday to contact everyone who’d attended the event to warn them of their possible exposure. Benefield said last week his department will abide by the state’s order.
“If it’s a non-emergency call and we can handle something by phone and not make contact with with the public as much as possible we will,” Benefield said, “but of course if there is a suspect on the scene, an active situation and so forth, we’re going to respond to the scene and take all precautionary matters and stay within the order.”
Green, the sheriff, said his agency has felt the absence of the deputy who tested positive, with the remaining staff having to “double up on some of the stuff” done by sheriff’s deputies.
In the interview at City Hall on Tuesday Rooks urged residents to take “personal responsibility” but said he would not ask police officers to make sure the mask mandate is followed.
On Monday Rooks said he takes the COVID-19 threat seriously.
“I will admit that I was very laxed. I do take it seriously; I admit that I was very laxed on the mask and really just kind of getting wrapped up to follow Gov. Ivey’s order, I admit I was laxed with it. I think we all are to a certain degree,” Rooks said.
Rooks said that all employees at City Hall were tested on Sunday and according to Kim Stone, city clerk, all tests came back negative Monday night and City Hall will be open on Tuesday.