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UPDATED: Ivey announces mask order will end April 9

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Bob Broom, 87, of Anniston faces a changed world in a mask. 

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Thursday morning that as of April 9, masks will no longer be required in public places as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Folks, we’re not there yet, but goodness knows we’re getting closer,” Ivey said in a televised press conference from Montgomery Thursday.

The state has been under emergency health orders of various sorts for nearly a year, following the arrival of the virus in Alabama in March 2020.

COVID-19 has killed more than 10,000 residents of Alabama and 287 people in Calhoun County, although the rate of hospitalizations has declined sharply in the weeks since the virus peaked in January.

Ivey said she’s pleased with that progress, but that she believes the state should keep the mask order in place until after Easter to avoid a resurgence of the virus.

“We really are getting close to the end,” said state health officer Dr. Scott Harris, who spoke along with Ivey at the press conference. “We’ve got a few more months.”

Harris said the state has administered about 1 million doses of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines now available, and conservatively expects to deliver 150,000 doses per week in the future, putting the state at about 1.7 million doses by the time the mask order expires. He said that by April, that number, combined with the half-million people in the state who have had the virus, should have the state much closer to herd immunity — the point at which widespread immunity would protect the unvaccinated from exposure to the virus.

At present, Alabama distributes the vaccine only to people 65 and up and people in certain vital, high-risk jobs such as health care, food production and education. Harris said Thursday that there are about 1.5 million people in those groups.

Ivey, a Republican, has for months resisted calls from people within her own party to end the mask order and other restrictions. There was a touch of that resistance in the governor’s Thursday announcement. Just a day earlier, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth challenged the governor to immediately end what he called a “Big Brother-style government mandate looming over us.”

Texas and Mississippi both ended most of their anti-COVID restrictions this week, a decision many health experts criticized as coming too soon.

The mask mandate had been set to end Friday, so Ivey’s announcement amounts to a five-week extension of the mask order. The governor was adamant that the order wouldn’t be extended again.

“After that it will be personal responsibility,” she said. “Alabamians are smart. They’ve got common sense. They know what works.”

Ivey said she will continue to wear a mask after the order expires. She said businesses will still be at liberty to require masks on their premises. The April 9 date gives them five weeks to draft policies for that, she said.

The Alabama Hospital Association was among the organizations that urged Ivey to keep the mask mandate in place. After Ivey made her announcement, AHA president Dr. Don Williamson said he understood the logic behind the April 9 end date.

“You have to look at what the reality is, and you have to look at what the alternatives are,” Williamson said.

COVID-19 will be around in some form for years, Williamson said. Vaccination and the spread of the virus could lead to a large portion of the population having some form of immunity by April 9, he said. And the mask mandate was always more dependent on citizens’ goodwill than on the force of law. 

“It’s always been self-policing,” he said. “We haven’t really locked anybody up.”

Williamson said Alabamians should spend the next five weeks preparing for the post-mask world. People should take extra care to wear masks and practice other forms of social distancing, he said. Health officials should get as much vaccine as possible out to the public.

“The fewer people you have who are infected, the lower the risk of infecting others,” he said. 

Williamson said the end of mask mandates in Texas and Mississippi will serve as an “experiment in nature” that will tell us whether it’s too early to stop using masks. 

Throughout the pandemic, virus skeptics on social media have downplayed or questioned the state’s count of deaths attributed to the virus. Harris on Thursday said that Alabama Department of Health Statistics show the state saw roughly 11,000 more deaths in 2020 than in an average non-pandemic year.

Before the pandemic, he said, there were about 53,000 deaths per year in the state. Those numbers track closely to the 10,000 COVID deaths reported by ADPH.

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