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Tourist attractions, entertainment venues can reopen under new Alabama health order

Coronavirus illustration

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows the structure of coronaviruses. The spikes around the surface of the virus are often described as looking like a crown, or "corona" when viewed with an electron microscope. A new form of coronavirus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.

Tourist attractions, theaters, racetracks and other entertainment venues in Alabama can reopen at half their normal occupancy Friday evening, under a new health order announced Thursday by Gov. Kay Ivey. 

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Ivey announced the relaxed health restrictions as Montgomery officials warn of a surge in new cases of COVID-19 that is stressing the city’s hospitals. But Ivey, citing 500,000 jobs lost since the start of the pandemic, said the state has to continue reopening its businesses.

“Standing by and letting businesses collapse while we've got hundreds of thousands of folks that are hurting and suffering is not an option,” Ivey said in a televised press conference from the Alabama State Capitol. 

In early April, Ivey issued a statewide shelter-in-place order to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, more than 13,000 Alabamians have contracted the disease, and more than 500 have died from it. Those numbers, while harsh, are far lower than the death toll projected before the state health order was put in place. 

The state-ordered closure of business has also hobbled the economy. Ivey said Thursday that a half-million of the state’s workers have filed jobless claims: there were about 2.2 million people working in Alabama before the orders. 

The state health board earlier this month relaxed restrictions on retail and on public gatherings, allowing many businesses to reopen. The entire health order was set to expire Friday at 5 p.m.; state officials instead extended most of its remaining provisions, while allowing “entertainment venues” to reopen. 

The category includes a wide variety of attractions, from museums to bowling alleys to bingo halls. Under the health order, those venues will have to operate at 50 percent of their usual occupancy and will have to maintain a 6-foot distance between unrelated people.

The new order also allows organized sports to resume. Teams can meet for practice, under the new order, but can’t hold competitions before June 14.

The order expires July 3. 

State health officer Scott Harris said the relaxed rules mean that pandemic-era personal precautions — wearing of masks, routine hand-washing and physical distancing — are all the more important.

“I just want to say that reopening Alabama only works if we all cooperate,” Harris said.

In comments Wednesday, before the order was extended, UAB epidemiologist Dr. Rachael Lee said she often sees people in public places without masks. Lee said some outdoor events, such as going to the beach, aren’t inherently unsafe because they allow social distancing — though they do pose a risk if people are still gathering in hotel lobbies or using public restrooms. 

“It’s not the beaches we’re concerned with, it’s everything that comes afterward,” she said. 

The announcement comes as Alabamians prepare for the long Memorial Day holiday, and as health officials keep a close watch on hot spots in the state, including Montgomery. Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, in comments on CNN shortly before Ivey’s press conference, said the city’s hospitals are being stressed by an influx of patients. 

Ivey and Harris, at their press conference, said that while coronavirus cases in Montgomery County are a concern, many of the patients in the city’s intensive care units are not there for COVID-19. Harris said hospitals often operate near capacity and have to move patients to other intensive care facilities. 

“Transfers to Birmingham to Montgomery are not unusual,” he said. 

Calhoun County seems to have seen its COVID-19 caseload decline in recent weeks. Emergency management officials reported Wednesday that Regional Medical Center did not have a single patient hospitalized with the virus, while the county had only 11 cases considered active. 

As of Thursday afternoon, 136 people in the county had tested positive for the virus since mid-March. Three people in the county have died of the virus. 

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