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Anniston unemployment hits 22 percent; state jobless rate in double digits

Anniston is among the Alabama cities hardest hit by the economic effects of COVID-19, according to state unemployment figures released Friday.

The Model City had an unemployment rate of 22.1 percent in April, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Labor. Of Alabama’s larger cities, only Selma had higher unemployment. 

Statewide, the news was bad enough: 12.9 percent of Alabama workers overall were on unemployment. It’s a stunning leap from March, when pre-pandemic unemployment statewide stood at an impressive low of 3 percent.

“This is scary,” said Samuel Addy, an economic forecaster for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. “People are at the core of our economy. They are the consumers and the producers, they are at the core of the equation, and they need to be working.”

The adverse economic effect of the pandemic lockdown is news to no one — but the April jobs numbers are among the first state numbers that plumb the depths of the downturn. Those numbers are from mid-April, when Alabamians were still under orders to stay home and most retail outlets were ordered closed.

The “leisure and hospitality” sector of the economy, which includes hotels and restaurants, took by far the hardest hit with four out of every ten jobs in the sector lost statewide. In Calhoun County, leisure-and-hospitality jobs made up 1,900 of the 4,100 jobs lost by mid April.

“I’m not convinced it’s going to be a speedy recovery,” said state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who owns the Finial Hotel on Quintard Avenue. Marsh said occupancy at his was at about 10 percent at best during the lockdown. 

Marsh said he has 14 employees at the hotel, and didn’t lay any of them off, largely due to the federal Paycheck Protection Program. 

Marsh was among the lawmakers who argued from the beginning that the lockdown was a mistake. He favored a combination of restrictions on high-risk groups, combined with robust contact-tracing to track down infections. 

Still, most health officials agree that the lockdown bent the upward curve of infections. Initial projections had the state losing thousands of lives to the pandemic, with hospitals overrun by waves of patients needing intensive care beds. 

By Friday afternoon, 13,546 people statewide had been infected with COVID-19, with 537 killed by the virus. Health officials have said Montgomery is now a hot spot for infection, though in Calhoun County, the pace of infection seems to have slowed.

The county has seen 137 infections from the virus, but by the middle of this week there were no COVID-19 patients hospitalized with severe infections. Three people have died of the illness here, the last of them more than a month ago.

Manufacturing lost a relatively small 600 jobs in Calhoun County, about one-tenth of the manufacturing workforce here. There was little change to the county’s total of 4,200 federal workers. Anniston Army Depot, where federal workers and contractors refurbish armored vehicles, stayed open after the lockdown, declared essential by the Pentagon.

“The manufacturing base is still solid,” said Don Hopper, director of the local Economic Development Council. “The depot’s running at a good pace.”

Still, Hopper said that he sees no silver lining in the numbers, and he said there are concerns that pandemic-related problems elsewhere could create supply problems for manufacturers here.

Anniston on Friday didn’t look like a city with 22 percent unemployment. State officials earlier this week eased some of the few remaining lockdown-era restrictions, allowing tourist sites and entertainment venues to reopen Friday afternoon. Quintard Avenue was crowded with traffic around midday, with parking lots at most stores at least partly full.

Even so, Addy said, it’s not clear the economy can quickly be set back on a good path.

“Historically, after a shock, whether it’s a health disaster or something else, the recovery period usually doesn’t last that long,” he said.

Still, he said, recovery will depend on consumers getting their confidence back, and with the virus still spreading, that may be more complicated than it was after the last recession.

“Back then, you weren’t talking about survival,” he said.

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