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Ivey bans large gatherings statewide as Alabama COVID-19 count rises to 78

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a sweeping executive order banning large public meetings and regulating other aspects of daily life Thursday, as the new coronavirus COVID-19 continued to spread across the state. 

Among other things, Ivey’s order prohibits gatherings of 25 people or more unless a 6-foot space can be maintained between them. It bans restaurants and bars from serving food and drink on their premises. And it postpones all elective surgeries to free up resources for dealing with the surge of patients expected as the disease spreads in the state. In announcing the order, the governor’s office said the order came from both Ivey and the state health board.

The order came as Alabama’s Department of Public Health announced 27 new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, bringing the total to 78 as cases were documented in three additional counties this morning, including Talladega.

"We believe that we have community transmission going on in our state," state health officer Scott Harris said in a televised press conference Friday. 

No one in the state has died of the illness, according to state numbers. 

Chambers and Walker counties also documented their first cases of the disease, and more cases were reported in other counties, especially Jefferson and Lee. Those two counties, home to Birmingham and the Opelika-Auburn area, respectively, account for more than half of the state’s known cases of COVID-19. The Public Health Department updated its site with the new reports at 9:45 this morning; another update is expected this afternoon.

Ivey’s order mimics one she issued earlier this week for counties in the Birmingham metro area, where more than half the confirmed cases have been discovered. 

The order, effective through April 5, includes the following provisions:

— Gatherings of 25 people or more are prohibited unless participants can maintain a six-foot distance between them. The six-foot limit has been cited by public health officials as the safe distance to avoid transmission of the disease. 

— Bars and restaurants are banned from serving food and drink on their premises. Takeout and delivery are still permitted. 

— All the state’s Gulf of Mexico beaches, public or private, are closed as of 5 p.m. Thursday

— Preschools and daycare centers were ordered closed at close of business Thursday. The closure doesn’t apply to child care centers that exclusively provide child care to state or local government workers, first responders, most medical and pharmacy workers and grocery store employees. 

— Visitation at hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, by anyone except medically necessary personnel, is prohibited. Ivey’s order allows exceptions for “compassionate care situations such as maternity or end-of-life.”

— All elective dental and medical procedures are delayed until further notice.

Harris said the crowd-of-25 order applies even to workplaces with large numbers of employees.

"The order does apply to them," Harris said. "Workplaces will have to find a way to practice social distancing."

Attempts to reach the governor’s staff for comment on the legal underpinning for the orders were not immediately successful. Harris, in his press conference, said that under state law, orders by the state health committee have the force of law and that people who disobey them could be fined. 

Harris said the orders were necessary to prevent Alabama from reaching the level of infection seen in Italy, where deaths from the virus reached about 500 per day this week. 

Health officials have long said their goal is to slow the spread of the virus so that new patients don’t overwhelm hospitals and the limited number of ventilators, which would likely be needed by the patients most severely affected. Health officials said Thursday that there are fewer than 1,000 unused ventilators in the state. 

“We have a surge capacity of about 800, that’s statewide,” said Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association.  

The Alabama Nursing Home Association announced Thursday that two of the state’s recently reported cases of COVID-19 were found in Jefferson County nursing homes. One of those coronavirus patients was a resident and the other was a staffer, according to the announcement. 

State health officials have in the past expressed worry about the spread of coronavirus into nursing homes. One of the first large U.S. clusters of the disease was found in a nursing home in the state of Washington.

Prisons and jails have also been a source of worry for health officials as the virus spreads. The Alabama Department of Corrections reported in a press release Thursday that an administrative employee of the department had tested positive for the virus. According to the release, there were no cases among inmates as of Thursday afternoon.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced this afternoon that his office would take action under the state’s price-gouging law against merchants who raise their prices above 25 percent of the typical price. 

“Alabamians should be on guard against those who would seek to prey upon them through price gouging of commodities and services for consumption or use as a direct result of the public health emergency,” Marshall was quoted as saying in a press release. 

The penalty for price gouging is a fine of up to $1,000 per incident. The release said. 

Calhoun County documented its first case on Wednesday as the state, the nation and the world increasingly hunkered down to limit the virus’ spread and fears of an economic crash grew.

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