By Michael Tomberlin
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced a statewide order today requiring everyone to wear a mask or face covering.
Starting at 5 p.m. on July 16 and lasting until 5 p.m. on July 31, everyone in the state is required to wear a face covering when in public within 6 feet of a person from another household, including indoor public spaces, public transportation and ride-share services and outdoor spaces with 10 or more people together. Exceptions apply to children age 6 and younger, those with medical conditions that prevent wearing face coverings, those eating or drinking while seated in a restaurant, those undergoing dental or medical procedures or those confirming their identity to security. There are other exceptions allowed for exercise, communication, constitutionally protected actions, such as voting and religious freedoms, and job functions.
The mandate is an amendment to the existing Safer at Home Order in effect through the end of July and comes in response to a record high in new COVID-19 cases, a sharp rise in deaths and a fear that hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
Ivey was joined by State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris at a news conference announcing the mask mandate. She said 2,141 new COVID-19 cases were reported Tuesday, July 14, setting a one-day record. There have now been 58,270 COVID-19 cases in Alabama, with 1,183 deaths attributed to the pandemic, Ivey said.
“More worrisome to us is the situation of our hospitals,” Harris said.
He said there are 1,477 COVID-19 cases in hospitals with another 541 suspected cases under investigation. Only 12% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds are available and 30 hospitals have very limited or no ICU capacity, Harris said.
“We’re almost to the point where our hospital ICUs are overwhelmed,” Ivey said. “Earlier this week, 87% of the ICU beds statewide were occupied.”
Ivey said she had hoped the data would improve after she extended the Safer at Home order and asked Alabamians to practice social distancing at her June 30 news conference.
“Folks, the numbers just do not lie,” she said today.
At that same June 30 press conference, Ivey said she could order a statewide face-covering mandate but said it would be “next to impossible to enforce.” She said a statewide order shouldn’t be necessary for something that people should be doing in their own best interest and for those they know and love.
“Well, folks, I still believe that this is going to be a difficult order to enforce and I always prefer personal responsibility over a government mandate,” Ivey said today. “And yet, I also know with all of my heart that the numbers and the data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction.”
Ivey said she is still hopeful Alabamians will see the importance of wearing face coverings.
“Once again, I’m calling on everyone, everyone in our state to practice personal responsibility and wear a mask,” she said. “That is why I am trusting the people of Alabama to do the right thing and wear a mask. With everyone’s cooperation, we can slow down the spread of this virus.”
Ivey said the current trends threaten the start of the K-12 school year, the opening of colleges and universities and the ability to have college football.
“We’re going to need everyone’s help if we’re going to slow the spread and turn these trends in a different direction,” she said.
Ivey said she decided to issue the face covering order after consulting with Harris, health professionals and business leaders. She called on businesses to help enforce the order with customers and clients.
The new order carries a $500 fine or possible jail time for violators. But Ivey said she isn’t looking to have law enforcement issuing fines or making arrests.
“That’s not the goal,” Ivey said. “The goal is to demonstrate the importance, the urgency of engaging this important tool that we all have access to: that’s a face covering.”
Ivey’s office has created signs businesses can download, print and place in their windows telling the public to wear a face covering before entering.
Those can be found here.
Harris said until there are more effective treatments or a vaccine, the best way to fight COVID-19 is to prevent the spread and the best way to prevent the spread is to practice social distancing and wear a face covering.
“I believe that this mask ordinance is the right thing to do because it will prevent disease transmission,” he said. “We really don’t have a lot of other options at this time.”
Harris said Alabamians should approach the order not from a perspective of being made to do something but from the standpoint of doing right by others.
“We all have a personal responsibility to do this,” he said. “People certainly will be upset about being told to do anything. But this is a health order that protects the people around you. This is something that we do because it keeps other people safe – those people that we know and care about but even those strangers that we encounter.”
Ivey said she would prefer not to see another shutdown of the state like occurred in March, but that remains a possibility.
“Throughout this process I have said that I reserve the right to come back and reverse course,” Ivey said. “This mask mandate is the first step of doing just that. Clearly, there are some other more restrictive actions that we could take, such as closing things back down, but I don’t want to go there unless there are absolutely no other options available.”
Harris said such a shutdown is preventable.
“We’re frequently asked, everyone asks, ‘Does the economy need to be shut down?’ The answer is, ‘No, not if people will cooperate with the orders that we have in place,’” he said.