Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday that she has no plan right now to order Alabamians to shelter in place, something that is being done in other states struggling with the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.
“We are not California,” Ivey said in a telephone press conference from Montgomery. “We are not New York. We are not even Louisiana.”
Ivey’s comments came as the state saw its count of confirmed COVID-19 patients rise to 242— a number that has doubled since Friday. Calhoun County now has two cases, as does Talladega County. The Birmingham metro area remains the state's hot spot for known cases, with 91 cases in Jefferson County and 27 in Shelby County.
The spread of the virus has brought a dual threat to Alabama and the entire nation. Health officials warn of mounting death toll if the disease spreads quickly, overwhelming hospitals and outpacing the numbers of ventilators needed by patients with the most serious respiratory distress. The best way to slow that spread is to place widespread limits on person-to-person contact — but at the risk of slowing the economy.
Unemployment claims surged in Alabama last week after Ivey and the public health board banned gatherings of more than 25 people anywhere in Alabama, and prohibited the state's restaurants and bars from serving sit-down customers.
Other states and cities, facing larger outbreaks than any so far in Alabama, have issued stay-at-home orders for the general population. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped more than 10,000 points from its February high and federal officials have predicted unemployment in the double digits.
Even as public health officials say more action is needed, criticism of the economic effects of the COVID-19 crackdown is mounting. President Donald Trump said Monday that the country could be "opening up" by Easter — a signal that he may be planning to ease up on COVID-19 emergency measures soon. Critics in Alabama say businesses can't go on with no end in sight for the state's coronavirus restrictions.
"What we're not hearing is government leadership at any level to set some kind of milestones," said Phil Williams, a former state lawmaker who is now general counsel for the conservative Alabama Policy Institute.
Williams isn't lobbying for Alabama's restrictions to end on a date certain. But he said he'd like the state to outline the conditions the state would have to meet in order for businesses to go back to normal. What would it take — a lack of new cases for a certain number of days, a decline in total cases — for health officials to know they've "flattened the curve" and cleared the way for people to go about their business?
"Right now no one can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Williams said. "All they're told is to hunker down."
Larry Deason, president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, said business owners seem most concerned about when aid will be coming their way, particularly in the form of Small Business Administration loans. Deason, who works at Farmers and Merchants Bank, said he's seen customers asking for their local payments to be deferred until the coronavirus countermeasures end.
Deason said he hopes the situation resolves in some way soon.
"I pray that it does end in the next week or two," Deason said.
There's no indication the state or the nation are anywhere near flattening the curve of infections. There were nearly 50,000 cases of the disease in the country as of Tuesday, according to the New York Times. Like the Alabama numbers, that case count has doubled since last week.
Ivey, in her press conference, echoed Trump’s sentiments about getting the economy moving — but she avoided committing to any specific date for an end to the state’s emergency measures.
“My goal is to keep the Alabama economy going as much as possible,” Ivey said. She also said she needed to strike a balance between public health and the economy. Asked specifically about benchmarks the state would need to meet for kids to return to school — all the state’s schools are closed until at least April 6 — Ivey said she was in talks about that issue with schools superintendent Eric Mackey. Attempts to reach Mackey on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
State health officer Scott Harris said 8 or 9 percent of the state’s current coronavirus patients have required hospitalization. Harris said earlier this week that some of the state’s hospitals were feeling pressure due to an increase in patients, but he has declined to name the hospitals.
He said that while most hospitals in the state operate most of the time at 75 percent of their capacity, Jefferson County’s hospitals have a pre-pandemic occupancy rate of about 90 percent because so many people travel there for treatment.
The state now operates 17 drive-through screening centers, Harris said. They’ll be funded in part by a $1.5 million federal grant that state officials announced this morning. The Anniston drive-in testing center — available only to people referred by a doctor — isn’t part of that state network and is run by Regional Medical Center.
Asked if the state would set up a screening center for Black Belt counties such as Dallas, Lowndes and Perry, Harris said Tuesday that the state hopes to do so. The state last week announced plans for 20 to 25 centers, but progress has been slower than expected.
“The limiting factor for us is obtaining equipment,” Harris said.
Harris praised the spirit of volunteers in some counties who have been making homemade masks for health care workers, but he said those masks were not actually recommended for use in hospitals. Ivey urged people to give blood, saying the Red Cross had contacted her with concerns that supplies would fall short.
State officials earlier this month announced that the March 31 runoff election would be postponed until summer due to coronavirus concerns. Asked if she favored a change in state law to allow no-excuse absentee voting — something that, proponents say, would allow voting to go on despite virus concerns — Ivey said it wouldn’t be needed even if the pandemic is a concern later in the year.
She said people concerned about infection can check the box saying they are ill or have an infirmity if they don’t feel it’s medically safe to vote in person.