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SPLC applauds Montgomery Council for repealing panhandling ban

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On Tuesday the Montgomery City Council repealed an ordinance that criminalized panhandling, which had drawn protests from members of the clergy, homeless advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The original ordinance was passed in July and required anyone cited or arrested for panhandling to serve a minimum two days in jail. Mayor Steven Reed supported the repeal and asked the City Council to take action.

“We are grateful to Mayor Steven Reed for his leadership and to the city council for rescinding this cruel and short-sighted law,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney at SPLC in a statement Wednesday.“The City Council’s decision to repeal the ordinance is an important first step.  Unfortunately, the City continues to issue hundreds of citations every year under separate laws that criminalize panhandling. It is our hope the City will also rescind these laws.  Rather than criminalizing homelessness, the City should work with business leaders, advocates, directly impacted people, and direct service providers to identify how best to support and meet the needs of its homeless population.”

Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement Wednesday that the organization was happy that Montgomery’s leaders decided to repeal “their patently unconstitutional panhandling ordinance.”

“Housing not handcuffs, is the way to end homelessness, rather than just push it out of public sight. We hope the City will finish the job by making it so no one needs to beg in the first place, by ensuring everyone has access to safe, affordable, decent housing and services,” Tars said.

Federal courts have long found that solicitation is protected under the First Amendment. In a decision earlier this week, the Supreme Court let stand a decision affirming that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.

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Health

Wisconsin students test positive after spring break on Alabama beaches

Eddie Burkhalter

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A number of college students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tested positive for COVID-19 after spending time on Alabama’s beaches during spring break, according to the university and multiple news outlets.  

University Health Services (UHS) and Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) recently became aware of a cluster of COVID-19 cases associated with a spring break trip organized by seniors, many of whom might be members of fraternities and sororities at UW-Madison,” wrote Dr. G. Patrick Kelly, interim medical director at UW-Madison’s University Health Services in a letter to sorority and fraternity members as reported by WKRG.  

“This trip started in Nashville, Tennessee around March 13 and moved to Gulf Shores, Alabama around March 16. Most students returned home by March 20. Multiple students on this trip have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 and many others are reporting similar symptoms,” the letter continues. 

Gov. Kay Ivey closed the state’s beaches on March 19. Prior to that decision, images circulated on social media of college students gathering along the state’s shorelines. 

UW-Madison has asked students who returned from Alabama to self-quarantine for 14 days.

 

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Governor awards $9.5 million in grants to expand internet access

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Gov. Kay Ivey has awarded 20 grants totaling more than $9.5 million to provide high-speed internet access to numerous communities throughout Alabama.

The grants, part of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, were awarded to nine broadband providers to fund multiple projects in their coverage areas.

“Availability of high-speed internet has always been vital, but the events of the past several weeks magnify just how imperative it is that all Alabamians have access to broadband,” Gov. Ivey said. “I am pleased to support these projects and look forward to the day when every household, school, healthcare facility, emergency service and business throughout Alabama is afforded broadband availability.”

The fund, which is being administered through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, was created by the Alabama Legislature in 2018 to provide high-speed internet to rural and underserved areas of the state.

“As our day-to-day way of living has been impacted over the past few weeks, it has underscored the value and necessity of high-speed broadband services. That is something that Governor Ivey, the Legislature and ADECA have been working to address through the Broadband Accessibility Fund,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said. “ADECA takes its role in administering this program seriously and is honored to be entrusted with the responsibility.”

This latest round of Broadband Accessibility grants came from applications submitted in late December 2019. Additional awards from this round of applications could also be announced.

Grants awarded and coverage areas are:

  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $224,175 to provide broadband services in north Lowndes County including 301 households and 15 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $289,100 for service in southwest Autauga and southeast Dallas counties including 343 households and 38 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $480,200 for service in northwest Autauga, northeast Dallas and south Chilton counties including nearly 500 households and 31 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $682,325 for service adjacent to the town of Billingsley in Autauga County which includes 656 households and 45 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $1.06 million for service in Chilton County south of the city of Clanton and north of the town of Billingsley which is in neighboring Autauga County. The project will offer service to 1,093 households and 41 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $557,987 for service in north-central Autauga County and parts of south-central Chilton County to include service offerings to 743 households and 21 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $531,650 for service in southeast Chilton County, northeast Autauga County and northwest Elmore County including 509 households and 17 businesses.
  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative – $279,300 for service in northwest Chilton County and east Bibb County including 409 households and 12 businesses.
  • Charter Communications – $336,830 for service in the town of Autaugaville in Autauga County including 641 household and 14 businesses.
  • Comcast of Alabama – $820,750 to service the Town of Dauphin Island in Mobile County including 2,500 households and 24 businesses.
  • Hayneville Telephone Co. – $205,705 for service in Lowndes County’s Black Belt and Hicks Hill communities including 258 households and four businesses.
  • Hayneville Telephone Co. – $125,671 for service in an area southeast of the town of Hayneville including 187 households and one business.
  • Hayneville Telephone Co. – $143,265 for service southwest of the town of Hayneville including 191 households and two businesses.
  • Hayneville Fiber Transport Inc. (Camellia Communications) – $90,072 for service in the Butler County community of Poorhouse community northeast of the city of Greenville.
  • JTM Broadband – $404,414 for service in Lauderdale County east of the town of Killen including 1,303 households and 247 businesses.
  • Mon-Cre Telephone Cooperative – $529,707 for service in north Crenshaw County and south Montgomery County including 350 households.
  • National Telephone of Alabama – $357,171 for service in the Red Rock community in Colbert County including 205 households and six businesses.
  • Roanoke Telephone Co. – $308,882 – for service in an area of south Randolph County between the municipalities of Roanoke and Wadley including 269 households and four businesses.
  • Troy Cablevision – $1.38 million for service in parts of Coffee, Covington, Geneva and Houston counties including 1,190 households and 80 businesses.
  • Troy Cablevision – $750,625 for service in parts of Coffee, Crenshaw and Pike counties including 603 households and 38 businesses.

ADECA administers a wide range of programs that support law enforcement, victim programs, economic development, water resource management, energy conservation and recreation.

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Alabama exploring empty hotels to bolster hospital bed capacity

Chip Brownlee

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Gov. Kay Ivey said on a conference with lawmakers and state officials Monday that the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are considering using hotels, especially in Alabama’s large metro areas, to expand hospital bed capacity.

The discussions come as public health experts warn that hospitals could face a surge in patients as the coronavirus pandemic spreads in Alabama and hospitals begin reporting more hospitalizations.

“The governor continues to explore all options to combat COVID-19,” the governor’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, said when APR asked about the plans. “A decision has not been finalized, but her priority remains focused on the health, safety and well-being of all Alabamians.”

On the conference call Monday, Ivey told lawmakers that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is visiting the city’s major metro areas to study facilities that could be used to provide extra hospital bed capacity if a surge in patients materializes, according to several lawmakers and elected officials who were on the call.

Ivey said on the call that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at ways it can contract with empty hotels to expand hospital bed capacity quickly to avoid an overwhelming of the state’s medical facilities with COVID-19 patients.

The Corps of Engineers is surveying potential sites in Tuscaloosa County, Lee County, Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville. The discussions seem to mirror a nationwide plan being discussed by leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers.

It’s not clear when any of these popup hospitals could be functional in Alabama. More information or some kind of report on the possibility of using the hotels is expected by the end of the week, lawmakers who listened to the call said. But that would only be the first step of the process.

Some experts have also recommended using closed rural hospitals across the state to increase bed capacity. “While there is not a specific plan to do so at this time, the governor is not ruling out any option,” Maiola said of re-opening rural hospitals. “The health of Alabamians is of the utmost importance.”

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States across the country are looking at hotels — largely empty during the economic shutdown — as potential venues to bolster bed capacity. Washington purchased motels to add bed capacity early on its outbreak. The Army Corps of Engineers, according to McClatchy, explored using hotels in New York City.

The Corps then played a large role in New York, setting up a number of temporary hospitals at convention centers, colleges and other sites in the city, which is now the epicenter of a national outbreak.

The commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, told Fox News that residents of other parts of the country can expect to see pop-up field hospitals like those appearing in New York City.

The hotels, officials said, would be the easiest to convert into extra hospital bed capacity because there are already individual bathrooms for each room and often air conditioning and heat for each individual room.

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Health

State health department confirms 13 COVID-19 deaths

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Public Health, after investigations into causes of death, has confirmed 13 COVID-19 deaths in the state. The department reported the deaths Tuesday morning.

Three deaths have been confirmed in Chambers County, two in Lee, two in Shelby, one in Jackson, one in Lauderdale, one in Mobile, one in Madison, one in Montgomery and one in Tallapoosa.

The department will continue investigating deaths to determine the primary cause of death.

East Alabama Medical Center over the weekend and on Monday reported seven deaths, including five in Chambers County and two in Lee County. Most of those, but not all, appear to have been confirmed by the state health department.

“In public health, we have to all make sure that we’re counting things the same way from state to state and we have fairly precise processes and definitions so that we all make sure that we are counting the same things,” state health officer Scott Harris said last week when asked about the state’s process for reporting deaths.

People might sometimes die from acute respiratory distress or cardiac arrest, but the primary cause of death must be determined before the state will report the death.

“It does take a little bit of time to review medical records to talk to people who were caring for that patient,” Harris said.

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