By Bob Blalock
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended through Aug. 31 Alabama’s Safer at Home order that mandates mask-wearing. She also contended that Alabama children belong in classrooms to start the school year even as her state health officer said the state’s COVID-19 numbers “are not particularly encouraging.”
“Y’all, we just must remain vigilant if we’re going to get our kids back in school and keep our economy open,” Ivey said at a news conference at the state Capitol. “Wearing a mask can’t hurt, but it sure can help and more and more people are seeing this for what it is, a way to protect yourself as well as protect others that you work with, come in contact with, care about and those you even love.”
Ivey challenged all public school districts and schools in Alabama “to phase back in to in-person classroom participation if at all possible.”
She also said the order, which had been set to expire July 31, will require school personnel and students from second grade through college to wear masks in school “whenever practical.”
“We don’t have the luxury of not getting our young people back in school. While I respect those districts that have elected to go to virtual classrooms, I feel with all my heart that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home, especially if there are other options,” Ivey said. “And that slide is likely to have a dramatic negative impact on Alabama’s future, our young people.”
Ivey said schools are important to children and their families for more than classroom instruction. School is a safe place for many children, and it is where they receive their healthiest meal of the day, she said. They are also loved and encouraged at school, the governor said.
“As a former schoolteacher myself and as president of the state school board, I’m telling you we need to do everything we can to get our kids back into the classroom as soon as possible,” she said.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Alabama’s COVID-19 case numbers remain a concern, with 81,687 confirmed cases as of Wednesday morning – more than 22,000 of those confirmed in the past two weeks.
“I think there’s a question as to whether we’re flattening out a little bit over the past three or four days, although I think it’s a little early for us to say that,” Harris said. “I would say that overall our numbers are not particularly encouraging.”
Alabama’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 1,493 Wednesday morning, Harris said, and hospitals have set several all-time highs for in-patients in recent days at about 1,600 confirmed cases. “These numbers are as high as we have ever seen,” he said.
Harris noted that case and hospitalization numbers spiked after the Memorial Day holiday and said the state is seeing the same surge following the July 4 holiday.
“I want to say thank you to Gov. Ivey for extending this order. I think that’s absolutely the right thing to do. I fully support that,” Harris said. “I’m very aware that many people don’t like the idea of having to wear a face covering and certainly I don’t either, and I know people don’t like being told what to do and I don’t either. But I do believe that it’s the right thing to do.”
Harris said that despite conflicting information and advice early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no longer any argument about whether face coverings are effective.
“Physicians and public health officials and medical researchers all have a consensus that this is the best tool that we have right now for preventing transmission of disease, short of everyone being locked in their house, which we certainly don’t intend to see.”
Harris said he was encouraged to see many Alabamians are taking COVID-19 seriously and wearing masks.
“As we begin to move toward school reopenings, it’s going to be more important than ever that people be willing to wear face coverings if we want our schools to minimize the number of cases they have and minimize the number of outbreaks and the risk of closing again,” he said. “We really need people to cooperate with continuing to wear face coverings. It’s really more important now than ever.”
Harris said a toolkit to help schools prepare to open and keep their facilities safe will be released later this week, and a satellite webinar for school officials will be held Tuesday, Aug. 4.
“I, for one, was very pleased that our state led the nation in giving Congressman Lewis an appropriate and, I think, fitting sendoff for a life well lived and a true example of service above self,” she said. “We’re grateful to the Lord that we had him for as long as we did, and our thoughts and prayers continue with him, his family and friends and all of the lives that were touched because of John Robert Lewis. May he rest in peace.”