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Heflin's Rooks seeks exception from state to allow city's reopening


Heflin Mayor Rudy Rooks at a City Council meeting Tuesday. Rooks has asked state officials to grant Heflin a waiver from the Alabama's "safer at home" order.

HEFLIN — Mayor Rudy Rooks has asked state officials to consider a waiver allowing Heflin to reopen fitness centers, restaurants, barber shops and hair salons while the COVID-19 crisis continues.

In a letter to Scott Harris, Alabama’s state health officer, Rooks noted that Cleburne County has 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and that only one of those cases involved a resident from Heflin. According to Rooks, the last confirmed case of COVID-19 was 22 days ago on April 7. He also noted that residents can be tested at the local Department of Public Health and at Southern Immediate Care, a private provider.

Rooks’ request comes just days after Harris and Gov. Kay Ivey announced the easing of restrictions that had been in place since early April in an effort to slow the spread of the virus that has sickened nearly 7,000 people in Alabama, hospitalized nearly 1,000 and left at least 267 dead. Those restrictions were replaced Thursday afternoon by a less-stringent set of requirements that allowed most retail shops to open as long as they limit customers to no more than 50 percent of their buildings’ normal capacity. Restaurants remain limited to delivery or take-out service, and “close-contact” businesses like those in Rooks’ request remain shuttered.

“Given the limited impact of COVID-19 in the City, the City believes that the continued restrictions on economic activity imposed by the current COVID Order are no longer warranted, subject to certain social distancing requirements,” the mayor wrote.

The most recent numbers for Cleburne County COVID-19 cases provided by the Alabama Department of Public Health Thursday morning show 92 Cleburne County residents having been tested. One resident of the county has died after testing positive for the disease, according to the department. 

On Thursday the Alabama Department of Public Health released a statement saying it received the request from Rooks and will respond after considering it.  According to Arrol Sheehan, public affairs spokeswoman with the Public Health Department, no other municipality has requested a waiver from the current COVID-19 order. 

Rooks wrote that Heflin residents and businesses are suffering and city tax collections are drastically lower. At a Tuesday night council meeting, Kim Stone, Heflin’s city clerk, reported that sales tax revenues were down 10 percent for the month of March compared to February.

Rooks said he hopes that a “localized approach” can be used to reopen businesses in Heflin. 

“What may be required for a place like Birmingham or Montgomery may not be applicable to more rural city such as Heflin at this time,” Rooks wrote.

Cleburne County’s rate of infection, according to the Public Health Department, is about 80 cases per 100,000 people, lower than most major urban centers, but similar to larger nearby counties such as Calhoun and St. Clair. A county’s population is little guide to residents’ risk of infection; Madison County, home to Huntsville and more than 372,000 people, has a lower rate than Cleburne, while Chambers County, population 33,000, has by far the state’s highest rate of infection. Cleburne County has about 15,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 3,400 of whom live in Heflin.

Rooks wrote that in Colorado, some counties have been granted waivers from state lockdown orders; on April 23, Eagle County, Colo., an early infection hotspot, was granted a waiver by the state’s government. Rooks hopes Ivey and Harris will adopt a similar approach.

Rooks said he hopes for the following amendments to the current COVID-19 order as long as a section requiring protection of customers in retail settings, social distancing and disinfecting of surfaces is enforced: 

— Allow fitness centers and commercial gyms to open provided that reservations are made at the gym to monitor occupancy levels. Customers and staff would be required to wear face masks and temperature checks would be mandatory. Locker rooms, except when used as a restroom, shall remain closed.

— Allow “close contact” services such as barbershops and hair salons to open but require customers to make an appointment and make masks mandatory for both staff and customers. No customer would be allowed to enter the business to wait for their appointment more than 10 minutes prior to their appointment time.

— Allow restaurants to fully open to no more than 50 percent capacity, requiring face masks and temperature checks for all employees and arranging seating so that 6 feet of social distancing is maintained.

On Thursday Rooks said he has heard of other cities expressing interest in getting waivers. 

Rooks said he has received a lot of positive response from residents about his request to open parts of Heflin’s economy back up.

“People feel like that it may be the right thing to do and we’re stepping up to try to get it done,” said Rooks.

Rooks said his request for a waiver is not political.

“As mayor I’m responsible for our citizens here and I’m responsible for our businesses to thrive and that’s what I’m trying to do is to get our businesses back to work,” Rooks said. 

​Staff writer Bill Wilson: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @bwilson_star.