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State officials order closure of ‘non-essential’ retail business

News conference

State health officer Dr. Scott Harris, Gov. Kay Ivey and a sign-language interpreter at a news conference in Montgomery streamed live on the internet Friday. Ivey and Harris announced new restrictions on businesses and public gatherings amid the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Gov. Kay Ivey this morning announced the state-mandated closure of all “non-essential” retail businesses beginning Saturday as Alabama’s death toll from COVID-19 rises.

Department stores, barber shops, gyms and bookstores were among the list of 33 types of establishments explicitly ordered closed beginning 5 p.m. Saturday, according to an order released on the governor’s Twitter feed. 

"This is disappointing news to deliver, but this is a matter of life and death,” Ivey said in a televised 11 a.m. press conference.

Health officer Scott Harris said the state will order the closure of businesses to the public in four categories:

— Entertainment venues

— Athletic facilities and activities

— Non-essential “close-contact” businesses, and

— Non-essential retail stores

Harris also said the state will ban gatherings of 10 or more people except in business situations. That tightens an already-existing ban on gatherings of 25 or more. 

The new orders will be effective until April 17, Harris said.

The move came as Alabama’s numbers of known COVID-19 patients on Friday kept climbing above 500, and the state recorded its second and third deaths from the illness. Harris said Friday that the state is investigating eight more deaths that may be related to COVID-19.

Public health officials say the best hope for avoiding a large number of deaths from the disease is by social distancing, with people limiting interpersonal contact and staying at least 6 feet from one another. There’s no vaccine for the new virus, and no one has pre-existing immunity. Public health officials say that by slowing the spread of the virus, communities can at least avoid a sudden rush of cases that would overwhelm the capacity of hospitals. 

To that end, the state has already taken measures that would have been unthinkable just a month ago. Schools have been closed since mid-March, and Ivey announced on Thursday that students will finish the rest of this year’s academic work at home. Gatherings of 10 or more people are banned. Restaurants and bars are prohibited from serving people on their premises, allowed to offer only take-out and delivery.

These changes have often come through Ivey’s office, but orders actually come from the State Board of Health, a committee of doctors whose regulations, in times of public health emergency, have the force of law. Violating those public health orders is a misdemeanor, and also carries a fine of up to $500. Local police say they’ve had no need to force people or businesses to comply. 

The health orders — and tougher restrictions in other states — have delivered a crushing blow to the economy. 

Alabama on Friday released its unemployment numbers for February, a snapshot of the world before COVID-19 appeared in the state. Unemployment was 2.7 percent then, a record low. But state officials also say jobless claims skyrocketed in the past week, with roughly 10,000 people filing for their first unemployment check. 

Four in 10 of those new claims were from people in the restaurant or hospitality industries, the sector directly affected by the health board’s earlier ban. The new restrictions will likely spread the pain to a greater number of workers. 

Ivey has so far rejected the notion of a “shelter-in-place” order that would in essence keep everyone at home until the illness is under control. On Friday, Ivey said she stopped short of ordering shelter in place to strike a balance between public safety and the needs of the economy. 

“When a business closes down, it's very, very — almost impossible — to bring it back to life,” the governor said. 

Ivey said it’s too early to estimate how much the closures will add the state’s jobless numbers.

The announcement likely left some business owners wondering whether they’ll be affected by the ban. Harris on Thursday said gun stores are not on the list of banned retail establishments — though “sporting goods stores” are on the list. The list includes “department stores” but doesn’t specify whether big box stores such as Wal-Mart, which serve as the main grocery store in some communities, would be affected.

“Unlike other states, we are not trying to designate what is essential,” Ivey said. “Instead, we are trying to designate what is not essential. If it's not on the list, it's not closed.” 

Robert Downing said he’d likely keep his family’s store, Downing and Sons on Gurnee Avenue, open. The shop was once known as Downing’s General Store, but Downing doesn’t think it fits any classification in the closure order. The store sells fabric and garden supplies. 

“People are going to need seeds and plants,” Downing said. He said he’s seen a decline in business since the coronavirus crisis began. He said his customers are well aware of the need to maintain a proper distance.

“It’s breaking my heart to close this store,” said Patricia Hancock, owner of Book Rack, a used bookstore on Quintard Avenue. Hancock, 75, was already planning to close her 43-year-old shop permanently later this spring, with a $1 per book closeout sale. She didn’t know about Ivey’s order until a reporter told her Friday afternoon. Now she’s not sure whether the closeout sale will happen. 

“What am I supposed to do with all this inventory if I can’t reopen?” she said. “Just put it all on the curb?”

Ivey and Harris announced the new orders in a televised news conference without an in-person audience — a practice state officials have adopted, they say, because they want to model proper social distancing. They took questions from reporters in advance of the press conference, by email. 

In a Thursday night declaration, Ivey also issued orders allowing notaries and state agencies to conduct business electronically and authorizing cities and counties to allow police to issue summonses for misdemeanors in lieu of arrest.

Ivey’s order states that “the conditions of jails inherently heighten the risk” of transmission of the disease.

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