The Lodge at Gulf State Park reopened in November after a 14-year absence.
The old lodge was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Governor Kay Ivey opened the much larger new lodge in November. The new lodge is 350 rooms and is managed by Hilton Hotels.
The Alabama Political Reporter toured the new facility on January 11 to 13 as part of Governor Kay Ivey’s Gulf Coast Inaugural Celebration.
The hotel sits on a white sand beach facing the Gulf of Mexico and is immediately across the street from Lake Shelby. Alabama’s Gulf State Park is 6,150 acres of beaches, lake, wetlands, brush, and forest. The lodge is connected to 25 miles of walking trails throughout the park. The state fishing pier is a short walk away.
The Lodge is four buildings: a spacious lobby building, a five-story hotel building with pool and fitness room, a restaurant building, and a conference center with parking underneath and adjacent to the conference center.
Most of the building are built on piers so that a future storm surge can go under the buildings, hopefully minimizing the damage and making the facility more survivable than was the previous lodge (1974-2004).
The lodge charges guests $5 to park in the parking lot. There is a ten dollar a night option for valet parking. The walk from the parking through the four buildings including two elevator rides back and forth between the hotel room and the parking lot means that paying the extra $5 for the valet is worth it. Rooms are $264 to $473 a night during peak times of the year. The Alabama Political Reporter paid only $105 a January is the offseason for beach hotels.
The Alabama Political Reporter sampled the cuisine at the Foodcraft restaurant. Fish and chips cost $26. The fish was good quality and heavily breaded. The French fries were narrow cut in the McDonalds style. For breakfast, there was a full-service breakfast bar for $22. The Alabama Political Reporter ordered eggs, two biscuits with gravy, and potatoes for $10. Quality was good and portion size was high. The Perch is the more expensive fine dining restaurant at the lodge.
The Lodge has both two bed and single bed options. Every room faces either Lake Shelby or the Gulf of Mexico. The Alabama Political Reporter stayed in a fifth-floor room overlooking Lake Shelby. Each room comes with a desk and a flat-screen TV. The room had a walk-in shower; but no bathtub. It also had a refrigerator, microwave, and free Wi-Fi.
Touring the fishing pier costs $3. Fishing at the fishing pier costs $9 a day. Fishing from the lake is just $2 a day. Birds, particularly pelicans, are everywhere.
The completely reimagined Lodge was designed by LakeFlato and Rabun Architects with a native landscape by Sasaki Associates. The building is just 200-225 feet from the gulf. The buildings are positioned to take advantage of gulf breezes for natural ventilation. While that likely is pleasant in summer months, going in and out of the four buildings periodically meant windy conditions during my stay. The interiors were designed by Dallas based interior design firm, Looney & Associates. The Lodge at Gulf State Park includes offers over 40,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space. The Gulf view Ballroom is the largest beach-view ballroom in the region and can accommodate indoor events up to 1,000 guests. There were over 800 guests at Governor Kay Ivey’s Gulf Coast Inaugural Celebration and the facility easily handled that crowd. Every meeting room has direct views and patios and/or terraces overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
The Roasted Oak Coffee and Wine Bar is in the main lobby. The Dragonfly Pool Bar & Grill is next to the pool; though it only operates in the spring and summer months.
Condensation from the HVAC system is collected and recycled to replace water in the pool. Rainwater is collected and directed to a restored wetland on site rather than being diverted to storm sewers. The hotel parking lot is permeable using TrueGrid technology so rainwater drains into the ground.
The Lodge shares space with endangered species. All lighting is shielded away from turtle nesting areas and pointed away from the beach. Baby sea turtles hatch and walk toward lights. For a hundred million years the light on the horizon was the ocean. Today many baby turtles instead walk into traffic or buildings. Lights on the beachside of the property are warmer to be less confusing to wildlife and floor to ceiling glass windows in the main lobby have bird friendly safety measures. Sand dunes are protected as habitat for endangered Alabama Beach Mouse. Landscaping uses native species that can thrive without irrigation, chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
Economic Developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “The Lodge at Gulf State Park is appealing to both business and leisure travelers. The partnership with Hilton Hotels and Valor Hospitality establishes a world-class environment that guests can count on, which should generate repeat visits to a beautiful area of our state.”
Nicole Jones shared, “On a more sentimental note, Gulf State Park is part of a tradition many of us grew up with. Now that The Lodge is up and running again, new generations will be able to create memories similar to the ones we all hold dear.”
The state spent $150 million to improve the Gulf State Park and replace the storm-ravaged old lodge. Much of that money came from BP oil spill penalties.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park is part of Hilton Honors guest-loyalty program for Hilton’s 15 distinct hotel brands.
For nearly 100 years, Hilton Hotels & Resorts has been a leader in the hospitality industry. Hilton Honors members who book directly through preferred Hilton channels have access to instant benefits. Hilton (NYSE: HLT) is a leading global hospitality company with a portfolio of 15 brands comprising more than 5,500 properties with nearly 895,000 rooms, in 109 countries and territories.
To learn more about Gulf State Park, visit their website.
Alabamians request more than 101,000 absentee ballots with 30 days left to apply
So far, 35,184 absentee ballots have been successfully returned for the general election.
At least 101,092 absentee ballots have been requested so far in Alabama according to Secretary of State John Merrill, with just 30 days left to apply for an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 general election. So far, 35,184 absentee ballots have been successfully returned for the general election.
In order to protect the safety and well-being of voters, Merrill is encouraging those who are concerned about contracting or spreading the coronavirus to apply for and cast an absentee ballot.
Voters may also contact the secretary of state’s office at 334-242-7210 to request an absentee ballot application.
Due to the declared states of emergency, any qualified voter who determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote at their polling place shall be eligible to check the box on the absentee ballot application that is most applicable to that individual. In the case none of the boxes are appropriate, voters can check the box which reads, “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls. [ID REQUIRED]”
For the Nov. 3 general election, the deadline to register to vote is Monday, Oct. 19, the deadline to submit an absentee ballot application is Thursday, Oct. 29, the deadline to return an absentee ballot to the absentee election manager is the close of business Monday, Nov. 2, and the last day to postmark an absentee ballot is Monday, Nov. 2.
Voters who are eligible to vote pursuant to the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act will have until Tuesday, Nov. 3 to postmark an absentee ballot.
Voters concerned about COVID-19 are encouraged to select the box on the affidavit, which accompanies the absentee ballot, which reads as follows: “I am physically incapacitated and will not be able to vote in person on election day.”
Due to recently witnessed delays with the U.S. Postal Service, Merrill encourages voters interested in returning their ballot by mail to go ahead and make application for their absentee ballot. As a reminder, Merrill worked with the Legislature last year to pass Act 2019-507, allowing voters the opportunity to return their absentee ballot by commercial carrier in addition to U.S. mail.
Former Barbour County sheriff arrested, charged with taking money from sheriff’s office
Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Tuesday announced the arrest of Leroy Davie Upshaw, the former sheriff of Barbour County, on charges that he used his office for personal gain.
Upshaw, 49, surrendered to the Barbour County Sheriff’s Office on Monday and was released on bond, according to a Marshall’s office. He had served as sheriff until his term ended in January 2019.
Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office, Marshall’s office alleges. One charge alleges that he used his public office to receive personal financial gain and the other charge alleges that he used his office to obtain financial gain for members of his family.
The Dothan Eagle reported in 2018 that Upshaw’s troubles began when the sheriff’s office was audited and cited for 11 errors, including one in which Upshaw gave himself the additional salary that had gone to the former work release administrator.
If convicted of the class B felony of using his office for personal gain, Upshaw could face up to 20 years in prison.
Governor: Alabama will get 1 million rapid antigen COVID-19 tests
The state is to receive the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow rapid tests in phases over the next few months. The initial shipment is set to include approximately 96,000 tests.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that the Trump administration is to send 1 million new rapid COVID-19 tests to Alabama, but the details on their use was still being worked out.
Ivey’s office announced in a press release that the state is to receive the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow rapid tests in phases over the next few months, and that the initial shipment is to be of approximately 96,000 tests.
It was unclear Tuesday who will get the tests or whether the results will be required to be reported to The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), however. In a statement Ivey said while we await a vaccine “providing Alabamians – especially our students and vulnerable citizens – with this free resource will be another critical tool in the toolbox to combat COVID-19.”
Our Office is working in coordination with Public Health as we firm up plans for distribution. We are working to ensure students and high-risk individuals have access to this resource,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, in a response to APR’s questions Tuesday.
Questions to ADPH on Tuesday weren’t immediately responded to.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 26 gave an emergency use authorization to Abbott laboratories for the rapid antigen tests, which is the first of its kind to require no lab equipment.
The USDA on Sept. 18 reissued an emergency use declaration, changing wording to say that the tests are to be used “within the first seven days of the onset of symptoms” and that “testing facilities within the United States and its territories are required to report all results to the appropriate public health authorities.”
“Studies have shown that antigen levels in some patients who have been symptomatic for more than five days may drop below the limit of detection of the test. This may result in a negative test result, while a more sensitive test, such as RT-PCR, may return a positive result,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in guidance on the use of antigen tests.
The Trump administration approved a $760 million contract with the company to produce about 150 million tests.
“We’ll ship tens of millions of tests in September, ramping production to 50 million tests a month in October,” Abbott Laboratories said on the company’s website.
Other governors were making similar statements Tuesday about pending Abbott Laboratory tests coming to their states.
President Donal Trump on Monday announced plans to ship 100 million of the tests to states based upon population.
“Governors have the flexibility to use these tests as they deem fit, but we strongly encourage governors to utilize them in settings that are uniquely in need of rapid, low-tech, point-of- care tests, like opening and keeping open our K-through-12 schools; supporting critical infrastructure and first responders; responding to outbreak, specifically in certain demographics or locations; and screening of surveillance in congregate settings,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official in charge of COVID-19 testing for the White House’s coronavirus task force, speaking with Trump from the Rose Garden on Monday.
The Abbott Laboratories rapid antigen tests, which use a swab and a small card and can provide results within 15 minutes, have some similarities to existing antigen tests now being used across Alabama, which use small machines to provide quick results.
ADPH has struggled at times to get results from those existing rapid antigen tests, which are often used in non-traditional lab settings, such as nursing homes, universities and urgent care clinics, some of which aren’t accustomed to ADPH’s reporting process.
Dr. Karen Landers, an assistant state health officer for ADPH, told Kaiser Health News last week that she was concerned about the undercounting of antigen test results, and that some providers were struggling to submit results.
“We can’t afford to miss a case,” Landers told the news outlet.
Delayed reporting caused spike in Alabama’s daily COVID-19 count
Two large labs were improperly reporting COVID-19 testing data to the Alabama Department of Public Health, and a data dump from those labs resulted in the state’s largest single day spike in new daily cases on Sept. 25.
Two large labs were improperly reporting COVID-19 testing data to the Alabama Department of Public Health, and a data dump from those labs resulted in the state’s largest single day spike in new daily cases on Sept. 25 when 2,452 cases were reported.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR on Tuesday that once those two labs sent in a mass of old test results electronically to ADPH — almost all of them point-of-care antigen tests — those results caused the spike in new daily cases.
“ADPH continues to make all efforts possible to identify new labs and bring them into the electronic reporting process in order to capture the positive and negative labs for case investigation and data accuracy,” the department said in a statement regarding the recent data dump.
In addition to the large batch of backlogged positive antigen tests on Sept. 25, the state has also begun including probable tests — largely those positives from antigen tests — in both its statewide and county-by-county data, which APR uses to populate its charts. The state began reporting probable cases and deaths on the statewide level on May 30, and began including those totals in graphs on Sept. 1.
(Because ADPH has been reporting probable cases and deaths since May 30, APR was able to adjust our charts back to May 30 beginning Sept. 1 without the addition of the probable cases causing a huge spike.)
On the county level, though, probable cases and deaths were not reported at all until Sept. 25, when the full total of every probable case was added to county charts. The addition of those probable cases made some counties appear to have even larger spikes than the statewide increase on Sept. 25, which was already the largest increase to date because of the backlogged positives from the labs improperly reporting positives.
(The addition of the new probable cases have also affected other measures APR calculates based on those cumulative and daily totals including seven-day averages, 14-day averages and percent positivity.)
For example, many counties over the past week have reported more positive cases than total tests, which would be impossible without the data delay and the addition of probable cases. Some counties, like Lee County and Tuscaloosa County, showed such large increases on Sept. 25 that their positive totals on that day alone appear to outmatch the statewide increase.
That, again, is because the statewide total was already including probable cases beginning Sept. 1 and daily probable data was available back to May 30, but county level data did not include probable cases until Sept. 25.
Harris said it’s not uncommon for some labs to hold off reporting test results for a couple of weeks, then submit them all at once. Smaller commercial labs that don’t amass many tests often wait until a batch has been accumulated to submit.
Two labs sent in a large batch of older negative test results to the state in August, which skewed charts that use that data to track new daily tests and percent positivity. A similar artificial dip and spike in statewide COVID-19 data in early June was the result of computer system problems.
Speaking on the current state of COVID-19 in Alabama, Harris said “we’re cautiously optimistic about where we are” and noted that unlike the spike in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide after Memorial Day into July, the most recent Labor Day holiday does not seem to have resulted in larger numbers.
“We did not appreciate a big spike after Labor Day, which was very, very encouraging,” Harris said.
Harris noted that the state hasn’t imposed any new restrictions since May, other than the statewide mask order in mid-July, which was followed by a decline of new confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“I will say, we still have room to improve. The hospital numbers now are about half of where they were in early August,” Harris said. “Yet they’re still a lot higher than they were back in the spring, so I wish we would continue to see more improvement, but I think we’re definitely much better than we were a couple of months ago.”
Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order is set to expire Friday, but Ivey and Harris are expected to make an announcement about whether it will be extended. Harris said Ivey’s coronavirus task force is to have a conference call Tuesday afternoon and that an announcement would likely come soon.