With 39 cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 now confirmed in Alabama, including one in St. Clair County, state health officials ordered measures to restrict interaction between people in Jefferson and several surrounding counties.
In a news conference broadcast Tuesday morning from Montgomery, state health officer Scott Harris said that as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, gatherings of 25 people or more are prohibited in Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Blount, St. Clair and Shelby Counties.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday morning ordered bars and restaurants in those counties to serve no food or drink on those premises for one week. State officials also ordered closure of all private schools and child care agencies in the affected counties, with the exception of child care affiliated with hospitals.
Similar measures could be in the works for the rest of the state if people don't limit interaction on their own, Harris said.
"Everyone in every county not affected by these orders should go ahead and implement these orders," Harris said.
The orders come as health officials say they're at a crucial phase in slowing the spread of the virus, which could overwhelm hospitals with critical patients. The worry among public officials is that without lockdown-like actions, the U.S. will see the virus explode as it has in Italy. But government officials take those measures with the knowledge that quarantines and closures will almost certainly hurt the economy.
"We don't want to get into another Great Recession or Depression, but this has the potential to be worse than 2008," U.S. Sen Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, said in a telephone press conference earlier Tuesday morning.
Jones said he's seeking bills that would delay tax filing deadlines until August and would provide direct federal financial assistance — not just government-required, employer-provided sick leave — to people who are unable to work because of the virus.
The goal of that assistance is not to pump money into the economy, he said, but to make sure people can stay home and avoid spreading the illness.
"The best thing we can do for this economy is to blunt the spread of the virus," he said.
Jones said he didn't yet know how much money the government should offer as assistance. He said he hoped an emergency measure of that sort would be needed only for three months — and not for a full year.
Harris, in his news conference, said he expected COVID-19 to be a major issue for the state for three or four months.
Harris said the state has set up six testing centers for the virus, none of which is in Calhoun, Talladega or surrounding counties. He said the large number of cases in Jefferson County — source of more than half of the state's cases — could be due to "testing bias" because one of the testing centers is there.
Jones, the senator, urged people to avoid seeking tests unless they are actually ill with symptoms of COVID-19. He said he had a friend who has symptoms but has not been able to get tested because of high demand.
"What I'm asking people to do is to hold back," he said.
Jones said the biggest obstacle to testing the state right now is not due to a lack of testing equipment. Instead, he said, there's now a shortage of swabs for taking samples.
There were no confirmed cases of the virus in Calhoun, Cleburne or Talladega counties as of 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, according to state figures.