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Opinion | How has Alabama done reopening its economy post COVID-19 shutdown?

Chris Christie

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Alabama has partially reopened the state’s economy after a COVID-19 shutdown. How has that worked out?

Bluntly, re-opening Alabama’s economy has not worked out well and may become disastrous. Our lack of leadership, of planning and of resolve to do what is right has left us with too many sick, too many dead, and too many unemployed, and with many more to come. To focus on what we should do from here forward, let’s discuss below what can a government do, what Alabama said it was going to do, what Alabama did, and what Alabama should do.

What can a government do to minimize COVID-19 problems?

In my personal order of priorities, COVID-19 problems mean the number of dead, the number of sick (measured by positive tests and hospitalizations), and the number of closed businesses and unemployed. Looking at what other countries have done can tell us what works and what we can do better. The following discussion is arguably over-simplified, but gives what we might do to limit the numbers of dead, sick and unemployed.

One option is a government doing almost nothing. The U.K. flirted with and Sweden started down this path, hoping to build herd immunity. Both decided the COVID-19 numbers of sick and of dead were too much and changed course. Brazil seems to be partially on this path; the deaths there now are second only to the United States and Brazil is adding now proportionally about twice as many daily COVID-19 deaths as the United States.

A second option is COVID-19 testing, tracing and quarantining, plus wearing masks, strong social distancing, and similar measures. As an example, South Korea has more than ten times as many people as Alabama packed into a country that has less than three-fourths as much land (population density makes viruses more likely to spread). Yet, South Korea has one-third as many COVID-19 deaths as Alabama and has similarly fewer sick. In other words, South Korea thus far is doing about 30 times better than Alabama.

Moreover, while South Korea has closed schools and economically closed some small areas, it has not had a general economic shutdown, with high unemployment, as Alabama has (and as most other states here have). Primarily, South Korea tests lots of people, traces those with whom the sick have been in contact, and quarantines the sick and the exposed, avoiding much of the economic shutdown.

A third option is, when the numbers of COVID-19 sick seem to be getting too high, shutting down the economy. This option necessarily relies on judgments about what numbers are too high and predictions on what will happen several weeks away, since COVID-19 exposure can turn into COVID-19 sickness weeks after exposure.

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When the numbers decline, one can then gradually re-open the economy and close it again if the numbers rebound. This option is essentially the path Alabama has, and almost all states in the United States have, thus far chosen. And our nation has the most COVID-19 sick and dead in the world, our unemployment has sky-rocketed, and we have undertaken unbelievable federal debt to avoid economic collapse.

What did Alabama say it was going to do?

On April 20, 2020, the Alabama Political Reporter published my article about when should Alabama reopen its economy. At the time, Governor Ivey had just issued a formal statement indicating that Alabama would follow the White House Guidelines for “Reopening America,” issued April 16, 2020.

The White House Guidelines for “Opening Up America Again,” released April 16, 2020, proposed a three-phased reopening of states, if the state had a downward trajectory for a 14-day period for COVID-19 symptoms and cases, and said Governors should make these decisions. Before proceeding to a three-phased opening, the Guidelines proposed gating criteria that (1) a state’s COVID-19 symptoms and cases for a 14-day period have a downward trajectory and (2) its hospitals have treatment of all patients without crisis care and have a robust testing program, including emerging antibody testing, in place for at-risk healthcare workers. 

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The Guidelines also provided that, if no rebound occurs during Phase One and the gating criteria are satisfied a second time, Phase One advances to Phase Two. The Guidelines provided that if no rebound occurs in Phase Two and the gating criteria are satisfied a third time Phase Two advances to Phase Three. Phase Three proposed that employers staff worksites without restrictions. 

In addition to the Governora physician with the Alabama Department of Public Health on April 17, 2020, when talking about reopening the Alabama economy, said: “We are starting to see some decrease, but we are not seeing the level we need to see yet.” She also gave three requirements for lifting the shelter at home order: (1) A steady decline in positive COVID-19 tests, (2) more available COVID-19 testing, and (3) a drop in cases. On April 20, 2020, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris made similar comments.

What has Alabama done when re-opening its economy?

Alabama did not follow the Guidelines. Arguably, the state did at first. Then, the state did not. And the numbers and trends of new COVID-19 cases say that we might be in trouble.

On April 28, 2020, the Governor issued a “Safer at Home Order,” opening up the economy some with restrictions, effective April 30, 2020. More COVID-19 testing was not being done. The number of cases had arguably declined for 14 days, from a 7-day average high of 257 on April 13, 2020, to 7-day average of 203 on April 28, 2020, but also arguably had only reached a plateau.

On May 8, 2020, the Governor issued an “Amended Safer at Home Order,” adding restaurants, athletic facilities, and close contact service providers (barber shops, hair salons and nail salons) to what could reopen. This order made Alabama the fourth most open state in the nation. Still, more COVID-19 testing was not being done. Moreover, the number of cases had not only rebounded but had jumped to a 7-day average of 299 on May 8, 2020.

On May 21, 2020, right before the Memorial Day Weekend, the Governor issued another “Amended Safer at Home Order,” adding entertainment venues, educational institutions, and child care facilities to what could open. Still, more COVID-19 testing was not being done. Moreover, the number of cases had jumped to a 7-day average of 330 on May 21, 2020.

Perhaps more important than the Governor’s amended orders could be the perception of many people in Alabama that Alabama was back to business as usual. Alabama even attracted national attention for people not taking coronavirus precautions Memorial Day weekend. Based on the news reports, even the Alabama Department of Public Health raised concerns about a spike in cases two or three weeks after Memorial Day weekend.

As feared, the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked – and then some. On June 14, 2020, the 7-day average was 724, which is several times the numbers of COVID-19 cases in late March and early April that led to the Governor’s April 3, 2020 Stay at Home Order.

To be clear, this increase in the number of positive tests is not due to more tests. Recently the number of tests has increased from a 7-day average of 5,039 tests per day on May 25, 2020 (Memorial Day) to a 7-day average of 5,406 tests per day on June 14, 2020. So, the number of tests might explain a fraction (about one-eighth) of the increase in positive tests. More importantly, the percentage of tests that are positive has increased substantially from a 7-day average of 7.7 percent on May 25, 2020 (Memorial Day) to a 7-day average of 13.4 percent on June 14, 2020; the number of positive tests has almost doubled (using 7-day averages, 414 to 724) in about three weeks. *Correction: This piece previously said “the number of positive tests has increased from a 7-day average of 5,039 positive tests per day on May 25, 2020 (Memorial Day) to a 7-day average of 5,406 positive tests per day on June 14, 2020.” That was an error in wording. Total tests per day have increased from 5,039 per day, on average, to 5,406. This piece has been updated to reflect this correction. We regret the error.

Generally, a high percentage of positive tests indicate that not enough people are being tested. For example, South Korea’s positive test percentage is less than 2 percent. So, Alabama has recently been testing fewer people and still has more sick people.

Alabama can expect the number of COVID-19 cases to continue to climb and the number of deaths to multiply in a month or two. The recent protests may or may not make the numbers worse. If steps are not taken, Alabama can expect the upward climb of the COVID-19 cases and deaths to continue well into the future.

What should Alabama do now?

Even a slum in India has been able to turn around its COVID-19 numbers with the testing, tracing and quarantining approach. Surely, we can too.

Learning from the success and failures of others, Alabama should test lots of people, trace those with whom the sick have been in contact, and quarantine the sick and the exposed. The tests should be free and the results and tracing almost immediate. Doing this is going to take resources, but the expense should be much less than not turning around the numbers.

Alabama should also convince its people to wear masks in public to protect their neighbors, practice social distancing, and take other common-sense measures. The Governor’s Orders have recommended these types of steps. So, the issue appears to be a leadership issue of reaching people and convincing them to do what is right.

These efforts probably will not be as successful as in South Korea, because Americans resist being told what to do even when it is clearly best and because people travel between states so much. This means another important step would be to convince Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee to take similar steps.

In April and even May, taking these steps probably were not possible. While South Korea was ready, the United States was so ill-prepared for the coronavirus that we did not even have adequate masks, much less working tests. Surely by now masks and tests are available.

To be fair to our state, the federal government should have taken the lead on these issues, instead of pushing almost all responsibility to the states, and several other states among the most suffering have similar difficulties as Alabama. But Alabama can take care of its own people. Let’s do it.

Chris Christie is a guest columnist who regularly writes for the Alabama Political Reporter.

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Opinion | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1

Chris Christie

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(STOCK PHOTO)

On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.

Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.

In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.

Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.

In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.

Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.

In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.

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According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.

And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.

The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protectingevery citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the every citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?

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Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.  

The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.

Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.

Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.

Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.

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Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution

Gerald Johnson and John Cochran

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The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.

A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.

The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.

While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.

Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.

Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.

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On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.

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Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color

Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt

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Auburn University's Student Center (VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.

This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.

Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.

These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.

We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.

Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.

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In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.

We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.

In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.

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Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.

Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”

Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.

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Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing

Paul DeMarco

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.

Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.

To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.

Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.

There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.

The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.

State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.

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We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.

In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.

The state is depending on it.

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