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Pandemic and Pandemonium: 7 Days in Birmingham

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By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

One week ago, there were no identified COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County or the state of Alabama, as local officials discussed several proactive steps, including restricting travel by employees. In addition, they urged people to wash their hands frequently with soap and water or a 60 percent alcohol-based hand gel, as well as clean and disinfect all surfaces at home, school, and work as often as possible.

Within a week, there were 23 cases in Jefferson County and 46 across Alabama. The virus had spread so rapidly that nursing homes in the county no longer allowed most visitors, senior centers ended gatherings, hospitals limited visitors, and churches canceled services.

Universities and schools closed. Restaurants, bars, and breweries no longer offered on-premises consumption of food or beverages.

In grocery stores, bathroom tissue, paper towels, hand sanitizers, Lysol wipes, Clorox bleach, and hand soap were in short supply or nowhere to be found.

Jefferson County, Alabama’s most populous county, and Birmingham, the state’s largest city, issued declarations of emergency that included closing the downtown Birmingham and Bessemer courthouses to the public.

Here’s a look at an unprecedented seven days in the history of the Birmingham metro area.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11

Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB)

Effective immediately, the BWWB announces plans to temporarily suspend collections on delinquent accounts to ensure that all customers have access to clean water during the COVID-19 emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with medical professionals urge the public to take precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus, which includes proper hygiene practices.

“We’re being told that one of the main preventive measures we need to take right now is constant hand washing,” says utility spokesperson Rick Jackson. “We do not want any of our customers or those visiting the area to feel uneasy about being properly prepared when it comes to safeguarding their families due to the fact that they can’t afford to pay their water bill.”

Jefferson County

Jefferson County officials coordinate with the emergency management agency (EMA), Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH), neighboring communities, and local law enforcement to educate employees about COVID-19 and ways to protect themselves.

The county also implements additional cleaning measures focused primarily on the entrances to the courthouses, satellite offices, and transactional counters. Visitors to the courthouse notice more that more hand sanitizers are available, and they are encouraged to use them.

World Health Organization

The WHO confirms COVID-19 as a pandemic. The WHO chief says the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in two weeks and that he is “deeply concerned” by “alarming levels of inaction.”

THURSDAY, MARCH 12

Events Canceled or Postponed

The JCDH recommends that any event with 500 people or more be canceled. More than a dozen Birmingham-area events are canceled or delayed, including the NCAA Division II Track and Field and Women’s Basketball competitions; Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) basketball games; and start of the season for the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team. The cancellations are a sign of things to come.

Jefferson County Courts 

Jefferson County announces it will not hold jury trials in the Birmingham Division from March 30 through April 13. The Jefferson County court system says it will ban entrance to any county courtroom for anyone who has been to China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, or Iran within the past 14 days; those countries have been the hardest hit with COVID-19.

Other categories of people who will be barred from entering a Jefferson County courtroom: People with close contact to those who have been to those five aforementioned countries within the last two weeks; people who have been asked to self-quarantine by a doctor, hospital, or health agency; and people who have been diagnosed with or in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

FRIDAY, MARCH 13

Support for Small Businesses

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin instructs the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity to identify ways to support local, small businesses that may be affected by the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

“This is an anxious time for many, in particular among our small businesses, as they see event cancellations on large scales, which may affect them. … We’re working with civic and private partners to launch an economic resilience fund so small businesses can remain open and workers can keep our economy moving,” says Woodfin.

Serving Seniors

Drew Langloh, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Alabama, says his organization has taken steps to make sure its Meals on Wheels program continues to serve more than 1,000 seniors every day.

“Many of these are frail, homebound, and we have already ordered shelf-stable supplies to deliver to our seniors in case our volunteer food distribution system is interrupted or in case there is interruption in our food supply,” says Langloh, who adds that a lot of children rely on the school lunch program across the five-county area, so the United Way has talked to school superintendents about ways to help.

First Confirmed Case

The Alabama Department of Health announces the state’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Montgomery.

Miles College

Miles College suspends in-person instruction and begins transitioning all courses online as of March 30 through the remainder of the spring semester. Online instruction begins March 16 to any off-campus students who wish to remain at home and utilize the distance learning delivery option. Also, all athletic and extracurricular activities are suspended for the remainder of the semester.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) 

The BCRI temporarily closes to the public beginning Sunday, March 15; a re-opening date is not announced.

SATURDAY, MARCH 14

Birmingham City Schools (BCS)

BCS announces that it will close for students and employees effective immediately; the anticipated return date for students and employees is Monday, April 6, unless otherwise noted. While schools are closed, the district will offer meal services for students on weekdays, March 19 through April 3, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at select locations. An extended meal service plan will be provided as needed following April 5.

Alabama Power

Alabama Power Company says it has taken proactive steps in response to the health threat.

“Safety First is a core value of Alabama Power,” said the company’s CEO, Mark Crosswhite. “We are focused on the safety and well-being of our employees and customers, while ensuring there is no impact to reliable service. Our company is actively implementing strategic plans across our system to maintain the service our customers trust us to deliver.”

The company has taken proactive actions to both prevent the spread of illness and protect the safety and health of employees, including providing guidance for practicing safe social distancing, frequent hand washing, limiting travel, and avoiding large crowds, in addition to implementing telecommuting for those who can perform their duties remotely and canceling facility tours and external meetings.

SUNDAY, MARCH 15

Birmingham Public Library (BPL)

All 19 BPL locations close until further notice; all programs, events, and services are canceled.

City of Birmingham

The City of Birmingham establishes the keyword BHMCOVID to text to 888-777 to receive text messages with important information concerning the city’s response to COVID-19.

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)

UAB implements a limited business model to encourage social distancing and discourage the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining critical functions. For a two-week period, only essential employees are coming to campus, with others working from home or not working.

MONDAY, MARCH 16

Declaration of Emergency

Jefferson County, Alabama’s most populous county, and Birmingham, the state’s largest city put their respective government and city under declarations of emergency due to coronavirus. Jefferson County commissioners also announce the closure of the downtown Birmingham and Bessemer courthouses to the public until April 6.

“These are perilous times,” said County Commission President Jimmie Stephens. “With the social impact on our citizens and the economic impact going forward, it’s going to be a challenging time. But this commission will work together in a bipartisan matter to make sure it’s done properly.”

Birmingham Mayor Woodfin says these are unprecedented times for the city and the world: “We are working closely with public health experts to take the most effective steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he says.

In a statement, the mayor says, “I am declaring a state of emergency in the City of Birmingham. Based on the information we have received from public health experts, I have determined it is in the best interest of the public and the City of Birmingham to recommend there be no in-person events that consists of 25 people or more in the city.”

Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight says, “Life as we know it has changed, but try not to panic because 100 percent of us on this earth are going to die; 99.99 percent are not going to die from the coronavirus. We have to take steps to stop the spread.”

Cooper Green Mercy Health Services

Cooper Green Mercy, currently managed by Jefferson County and medical providers for indigent patients, initiates precautionary measures, including canceling all appointments other than oncology, diagnostic mammograms and ultrasounds, and wound care. Anyone scheduled for an appointment will receive a notice and will be rescheduled after April 6 unless the situation changes.

Urgent Care at the facility will remain open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but officials will prioritize enrollees. Tests for COVID-19 are limited, and those who do not have life-threatening symptoms might be asked to quarantine and practice self-care at home after being assessed.

A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club (AGGBGC)

AGGBGC closes all clubhouse locations until April 6, which includes the cancellation of Spring Break Camp, which was scheduled for the week of March 23 through 27.

Bill Payment Options

The BWWB closes the lobby of its payment center and main administrative building, with normal hours resuming April 6. During this time, the BWWB will continue to accept in-person bill payments via the drive-through and encourages customers to consider submitting payments online or by phone.

No Dining In Bars Or Restaurants

Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson, MD, announces that nursing homes in the county will no longer allow most visitors and senior centers will not be allowed to have gatherings. He also says restaurants, bars, and breweries will no longer be allowed to offer on-premises consumption of food or beverages. Carryout will still be allowed, and restaurants are encouraged to offer online ordering and curbside pickup.

In addition, gatherings of 25 people or more, and those where people cannot keep a six-foot distance between attendees, will be banned.

TUESDAY, MARCH 17

Public Works

The Birmingham City Council approves Mayor Woodfin’s request to provide $4 million to fund police, fire, and public works, as well as a stimulus program for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding includes $2.6 million in overtime for police, fire, and public works activities; $880,000 for additional technology for city employees to work from home; $547,133 in supplies for first responders; and $1 million for the Birmingham Strong Fund to support small businesses.

“This is an important message to the people of Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “Through this funding, we are committed to providing a full response to COVID-19 with our police, fire, and public works. Also, we have taken the first important step to launch an economic stimulus plan for our small businesses struggling during this pandemic.”

Jimmie Hale Mission

The Jimmie Hale Mission in Birmingham announces changes to types of food that can be delivered to those in need. The organization said it will not accept prepared food deliveries, except from authorized supply services, until further notice. Volunteers are not allowed to bring homemade meals or items from restaurants or use delivery services. The organization is still accepting nonperishable, such as items like boxed and canned goods, which can be left outside the facility’s doors to reduce face-to-face contact. This announcement comes after the Mission announced Monday all volunteer activities were temporarily suspended, except “Nourish the Needy” at Jessie’s Place—and, as of Tuesday morning, that program was also suspended.

City of Hoover

The City of Hoover announces the complete closure of two fitness centers until further notice. In a press release, city officials said the Hoover Recreation Center and the Hoover Met Complex are closed, effective immediately; the closures include the walking tracks at each complex.

WED. MARCH 18

Regions Bank

Regions announces that in-person branch-banking services will be temporarily limited to either drive-through service during regular hours or in-office service by appointment only.

“Our teams are committed to delivering financial services, advice and guidance for the people and businesses of our communities. This change will help us do so in a way that helps minimize risks related to coronavirus while also maintaining the ability of our local bankers to meet the critical financial needs of our customers,” said Scott Peters, head of Consumer Banking for Regions.

UAB

UAB will end in-person/on-site classes for the duration of the spring semester. Instead of on-campus commencement ceremonies this spring, UAB will host virtual/alternative commencement ceremonies.

In a statement, school administrators say “this is an unprecedented situation, but UAB remains committed to minimizing disruptions while keeping health and safety our top priority.”

“We are deeply disappointed that our graduating Blazers will not experience a traditional commencement this spring, but we will do everything we can to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments,” says the statement.

Target

Target, like many other chains, begins to close stores early to allow for additional restocking and cleaning. It also sets aside a dedicated hour for vulnerable shoppers, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.