Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended her statewide mask order until Dec. 11 due to increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, but she relaxed her previous order limiting capacity inside retailers, entertainment venues and gyms, and eased social distancing requirements in restaurants, barbershops, salons and gyms, with restrictions.
Ivey’s statewide mask order was set to expire Sunday, but Ivey said as we enter into the cold and flu season, combined with COVID-19 “it could present a deadly combination that only adds to the challenges of an already challenging year.”
Ivey’s amended “safer-at-home” order does away with her previous order, limiting occupancy to 50 percent for retailers, entertainment venues and gyms, and it will allow more customers inside restaurants, barbershops, salons and gyms, if those businesses install an “impermeable” barrier.
The existing requirements to wear masks and social distance are still required for retailers, entertainment venues and gyms, however.
“Specifically for restaurants, if they install plexiglass partitions or some other device, then they will be able to increase the number of patrons that they are serving daily,” Ivey said.
“Simply put, this should be welcome news as we get ready for the upcoming holiday season, which is often the bread and butter for retail, and especially for locally-owned small businesses,” Ivey said.
Ivey on Sept. 30 extended her order, which went into effect in July, citing at the time the upcoming election and a sizable reduction in the spread of the virus after her order took effect.
After a peak of new daily deaths on July 31, which was nearly two weeks after Ivey’s mask order, the number of Alabamians dying each day from COVID-19 began dropping significantly, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Public health experts say it takes around two weeks after a change, such as a mask order, to begin noticing differences in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Deaths are an indicator that lags even further behind new cases and hospitalizations, however.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris during Thursday’s press briefing that Alabama has added around 22,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks, and that while some of those were due to several “data dumps” of older cases “nevertheless we are seeing increasing numbers of cases.”
Harris noted that by the Alabama Department of Public Health’s calculations, the state’s positivity rate for tests is at nearly 10 percent. Public health experts say it should be below 5 percent or cases are going likely going undetected.
“And I think you’re all aware that our hospitalizations have been, on most days for the past week or two, around 1,000 or sometimes over 1,000 people,” Harris said.
The uptick in hospitalizations statewide has prompted concern from public health officials, who say the trends are headed in the wrong direction.
Harris said the changes to Ivey’s emergency order will not impact existing guidelines for high school athletic facilities and events.
Speaking on the requirement of restaurants and other close-contact businesses to install barriers to increase capacity, Harris said they believe it “makes sense that that would reduce some transmission.”
“I don’t think anyone would claim it completely reduces transmission for sure,” Harris said, but he added that it makes sense that such barriers would cut transmission through droplet spread.
Asked by a reporter how Ivey came to decide to loosen restrictions for business amid growing COVID-19 cases, Ivey said: “Well, we’re just gonna have to encourage people to wear their masks, social distancing and practicing precautionary protocols to stay safe.”
“I think the cases may be rising because people are just tired of the masks, and they’re not wearing it,” Ivey said. “And that’s causing cases to spread.”
Alabama added 1,381 new COVID-19 cases and 20 more deaths on Thursday. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations on Election Day crossed the 1,000-mark for the fourth time in eight days, and Tuesday’s number was as high as it’s been since Aug. 27.