Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Friday urged Alabamians to heed Gov. Kay Ivey’s warning that, despite her decision announced earlier on Friday to relax more of the provisions of her “safer-at-home” order, COVID-19 is still with us, and still deadly.
“I appreciate the fact that the Governor is doing all she can to walk a fine line between trying to get our economy open, trying to get folks out and going while at the same time following the advice of health care professionals,” Jones said in a press conference Friday, moments after Ivey’s own, in which she discussed the changes. “It’s a difficult balance I think she’s trying to thread here.”
Ivey’s announced earlier on Friday that beginning at 5 p.m. on Monday restaurants, bars, gyms, barbershops and salons could reopen with social-distancing restrictions.
The amended public health order also allows non-work-related gatherings of any size, so long as people can maintain at least 6 feet of physical distancing, a change from the previous order, which limited such gatherings to 10.
“But the key is really not the governor,” Jones said. “The key is really each of us.”
Jones called for Alabamians to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks in public and to recognize that what they do today will impact what they’ll be able to do in the coming weeks and months. A vaccine for coronavirus may be a long way away, he said.
As of Friday, there were 9,188 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 374 deaths in Alabama caused by the virus, and 114,649 Alabamians had been tested for COVID-19.
Jones cited APR reporter Chip Brownlee’s data analysis that uses Alabama Department of Public Health data to show that Alabama reported on Thursday nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 cases over the previous seven days.
Those recorded cases were the highest number of new reported cases over a seven-day period since the outbreak began, and Thursday’s 355 new cases was the largest single-day increase in newly reported cases.
“What we’re seeing here is not just an aberration or a blip. This is a relatively-sustained increase,” Jones said, adding that it may be in part because we’re testing more, but that “that really shouldn’t really give people any comfort.”
The more Alabama tests, the more cases the state finds, Jones said, which is a sign of continued community spread of the virus.
Jones said he hoped the public wouldn’t focus on what’s going to be opened up starting Monday under the new public health order, but rather what Ivey said at the start of her press conference earlier on Friday.
“Let me be crystal clear to the people of Alabama. The threat of this disease continues to be active, and it is deadly,” Ivey said before discussing changes to the state’s order.
Jones did take exception to Ivey’s statements earlier in the day, however, that she believes Alabamains are following existing distancing guidelines and staying home when at all possible.
“That’s not been what I’ve seen,” Jones said, citing a University of Maryland study that showed that Alabamians aren’t heeding the pleas to stay at home.
According to the university’s study of cell phone location data as of May 1, the percentage of people in Alabama who are staying at home was the lowest its been since March 16.
“Right now if you go out you’re going to see a smaller percentage of folks wearing masks. You’re going to see more people out, and they’re not doing the social distancing,” Jones said.
Speaking of his work on legislation to aid in the recovery efforts, Jones said his Paycheck Security Act, if passed, would save American workers’ paychecks and existing healthcare, and keep the businesses that hire them going amid the COVID-19 crisis, without the pressure to reopen too soon.
“By doing that, we save lives and we save businesses,” Jones said.
Jones also said that next week he’ll introduce a bill that would give businesses tax incentives to produce personal protective equipment – masks, gloves and gowns – and ventilators in the U.S., to free the country from dependence on international manufacturers of the live-saving products.
Jones also suggested repurposing closed plants in Alabama to produce those items, bringing new jobs to the state and helping to save lives in the process.
“We can make Alabama a healthcare-manufacturing hub,” Jones said.
Jones said in state-after-state, black Americans are contracting and dying from COVID-19 in greater numbers, and that President Donald Trump’s administration’s problems with testing and distribution of testing plays a role in that.
Asked by APR whether, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics putting the national unemployment rate at nearly 15 percent on Friday, what more he thinks should be done to expand or shore up unemployment insurance, Jones said he thinks that “it is a given” that Congress will need to put more money into the program.
“I think that the Payroll Protection Program that’s in place now, we’re going to have to look at that. We’re going to have to extend deadlines,” Jones said.
But Jones said his bipartisan Paycheck Security Act legislation “is the only way that we can save these businesses. It’s the only way we can save these individuals.”
Jones said that he doesn’t foresee another emergency stimulus payment to individual U.S. citizens.
“If we do the things that I think we should do, and that is to keep people on payrolls,” Jones said, adding that he believes people would rather keep their jobs and the benefits that come with them, and to stay on the payrolls rather than get another one-time check.
Gov. Ivey on Thursday sent a tersely-worded statement to the Republican-controlled state Legislature threatening to call off a likely special session later in the year if the lawmakers didn’t give her a detailed plan for how they wanted to spend nearly $1.8 billion in federal COVID-19 aid money through the CARES Act.
“I have already seen one ‘wish list’ that includes a new $200 million statehouse for the Legislature,” Ivey said in the statement. “To me, that is totally unacceptable and not how President Trump and Congress intended for this money to be spent.”
Asked about the dispute between Ivey and the legislature over the federal aid, Jones said the nearly $1.8 billion to Alabama was intended to be spent on CARES Act-related expenses.
“Certainly not on a new statehouse building to build a new Taj Mahal for legislators,” Jones said.
Jones said that he believes Ivey’s response was strong, and sent state legislators a clear message, but that he may have done it differently.
“I’d have probably just said ‘to heck with you’ and, you know, ‘sue me’,” Jones said.
“It was a mess down there,” he said. “But I hope, quite frankly, if the Legislature is going to do this they look very carefully at how this legislation was crafted and what it was intended to do, and that they follow Congress’s intent, because we’re going to try like crazy to get more money for state and local governments.”
“And if they start doing things like building $200 million statehouses then they will probably see that there will be very little appetite to give state governments any money and we will direct as much as we possibly can to cities and counties,” Jones said. “Which is frankly where I want to see a lot of it directed anyway.”
Jones near the end of his press conference Friday also asked those in the public who’ve recovered from COVID-19 and who have and been tested and shown to have antibodies, to donate blood to help save others with the virus.
“That is going to be so, so important going forward,” Jones said. “As folks recover, please consider doing that.”